AN ASTROLOGER'S DAY
and other stories
Most of these stories were fast published in the Hindu of
Madras. I am grateful to its Editor for permission to
reprint them in this volume.
THIS BOOK FIRST PUBLISHED Of 1947 IS PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN
FOR ETRB AND SPOTTISWOODE (PUBLISHERS) LTD.
15 BEDFORD STREET, STRAND, LONDON, W.C.I
AT THE CHAPEL RIVER PRESS,
1. An Astrologer's Day i
2. The Missing Mail 8
3. The Doctor's Word 17
4. Gateman's Gift 24
5. The Roman Image 35
6. The Blind Dog 45
7. Fellow-Feeling 52
8. The Watchman 61
9. The Tiger's Claw 67
10. The Performing Child 75
1 1 . Iswaran 82
12. The Evening Gift 92
13. A Snake in the Grass 100
14. An Accident 104
15. Such Perfection 109
16. A Career 115
17. Father's Help 125
1 8. The Snake-Song 134
19. Forty-five a Month 140
20. Dasi the Bridegroom 148
21 . Old Man of the Temple 156
22. Out of Business 164
23. Old Bones 171
24. Attila 178
25. The Axe 185
26. Engine Trouble 193
27. All Avoidable Talk 203
28. Fruition at Forty 211
29. Grime and Punishment 216
30. Under the Banyan Tree 222
AN ASTROLOGER'S DAY
PUNCTUALLY at midday he opened his bag and
spread out his professional equipment, which con-
sisted of a dozen cowrie shells, a square piece of cloth
with obscure mystic charts on it, a notebook, and a
bundle of palmyra writing. His forehead was re-
splendent with sacred ash and vermilion, and his eyes
sparkled with a sharp abnormal gleam which was really
an outcome of a continual searching look for customers,
but which his simple clients took to be a prophetic
light and felt comforted. The power of his eyes was
considerably enhanced by their position placed as
they were between the painted forehead and the dark
whiskers which streamed down his cheeks : even a
half-wit's eyes would sparkle in such a setting. To
crown the effect he wound a saffron-coloured turban
around his head. This colour scheme never failed.
People were attracted to him as bees are attracted to
cosmos or dahlia stalks. He sat under the boughs of
a spreading tamarind tree which flanked a path running
through the Town Hall Park. It was a remarkable
place in many ways : a surging crowd was always
moving up and down this narrow road morning till
night* A variety of trades and occupations was
represented all along its way : medicine sellers, sellers
2 AN ASTROLOGER'S DAY
of stolen hardware and junk, magicians, and, above all,
an auctioneer of cheap doth, who created enough din
all day to attract the whole town. Next to him in
vociferousness came a vendor of fried groundnut, who
gave his ware a fancy name each day, calling it
" Bombay Ice-Cream " one day, and on the next
" Delhi Almond," and on the third " Raja's Delicacy,"
and so on and so forth, and people flocked to him. A
considerable portion of this crowd dallied before the
astrologer too. The astrologer transacted his business
by the light of a flare which crackled and smoked up
above the groundnut heap nearby. Half the enchant*
ment of the place was due to the fact that it did not
have the benefit of municipal lighting. The place was
lit up by shop lights. One or two had hissing gaslights,
some had naked flares stuck on poles, some were lit up
by old cycle lamps, and one or two, like the astrologer's,
managed without lights of their own. It was a be-
wildering criss-cross of light rays and moving shadows.
This suited the astrologer very well, for the simple
reason that he had not in the least intended to be an
astrologer when he began life ; and he knew no more
of what was going to happen to others than he knew
what was going to happen to himself next minute. He
was as much a stranger to the stars as were his innocent
customers. Yet he said things which pleased and
astonished everyone : that was more a matter of study,
practice, and shrewd guesswork. All the same, it was
as much an honest man's labour as any other, and he
deserved the wages he carried home at the end of a day.
He had left his village without any previous thought
or plan. If he had continued there he would have
carried on the work of his forefathers namely, tilling
the land, living, marrying, and ripening in his cornfield
AN ASTROLOGERS DAY 3
and ancestral home. But that was not to be. He had
to leave home without telling anyone, and he could not
rest till he left it behind a couple of hundred miles.
To a villager it is a great deal, as if an ocean flowed
He had a working analysis of mankind's troubles :
marriage, money, and the tangles of human ties. Long
practice had sharpened his perception. Within five
minutes he understood what was wrong. He charged
three pies per question, never opened his mouth till the
other had spoken for at least ten minutes, which
provided him enough stuff for a dozen answers and
advices. When he told the person before him, gazing
at his palm, " In many ways you are not getting the
fullest results for your efforts," nine out of ten were
disposed to agree with him. Or he questioned : " Is
there any woman in your family, maybe even a distant
relative, who is not well disposed towards you ? " Or
he gave an analysis of character : " Most of your
troubles are due to your nature. How can you be
otherwise with Saturn where he is ? You have an
impetuous nature and a rough exterior." This en-
deared him to their hearts immediately, for; even the
mildest of us loves to think that he has a forbidding
The nuts vendor blew out his flare and rose to go
home. This was a signal for the astrologer to bundle
up too, since it left him in darkness except for a little
shaft of green light which strayed in from somewhere
and touched the ground before him. He picked up
his cowrie shells and paraphernalia and was putting
them back into his bag when the green shaft of light
was blotted out ; he looked up and saw a man standing
before him. He sensed a possible client and said :
4 AN ASTROLOGER'S DAY
" You look so careworn. It will do you good to sit
down for a while and chat with me." The other
grumbled some reply vaguely. The astrologer pressed
his invitation ; whereupon the other thrust his palm
under his nose, saying : " You call yourself an
astrologer ? " The astrologer felt challenged and said,
tilting the other's palm towards the green shaft of
light : " Yours is a nature . . ." " Oh, stop that,"
the other said. " Tell me something worth while. . . ."
Our friend felt piqued. " I charge only three pies
per question, and what you get ought to be good enough
for your money. . . ." At this the other withdrew his
arm, took out an anna, and flung it out to him, saying :
" I have some questions to ask. If I prove you are
bluffing, you must return that anna to me with
" If you find my answers satisfactory, will you give
me five rupees ? "
" Or will you give me eight annas ? "
" All right, provided you give me twice as much if
you are wrong," said the stranger. This pact was
accepted after a little further argument. The astrologer
sent up a prayer to heaven as the other lit a cheroot.
The astrologer caught a glimpse of his face by the
matchlight. There was a pause as cars hooted on the
ro&djutka drivers swore at their horses, and the babble
of the crowd agitated the semi-darkness of the park.
The other sat down, sucking his cheroot, puffing out,
sat there ruthlessly. The astrologer felt very uncom-
fortable. " Here, take your anna back. I am not
used to such challenges. It is late for me today. . . ."
He made preparations to bundle up. The other held
his wrist and said : " You can't get out of it now. You
AN ASTROLOGER'S DAY 5
dragged me in while I was passing." The astrologer
shivered in his grip ; and his voice shook and became
faint. " Leave me today. I will speak to you to-
morrow." The other thrust his palm in his face and
said : " Challenge is challenge. Go on." The as-
trologer proceeded with his throat drying up : " There
is a woman . . ."
" Stop," said the other. " I don't want all that.
Shall I succeed in my present search or not ? Answer
this and go. Otherwise I will not let you go till you
disgorge all your coins." The astrologer muttered a
few incantations and replied : " All right. I will
speak. But will you give me a rupee if what I say is
convincing ? Otherwise I will not open my mouth,
and you may do what you like." After a good deal of
haggling the other agreed. The astrologer said :
" You were left for dead. Am I right ? "
" Ah, tell me more."
" A knife has passed through you once ? " said the
" Good fellow ! " He bared his chest to show the
scar. "What else?"
" And then you were pushed into a well nearby in
the field. You were left for dead."
" I should have been dead if some passer-by had not
chanced to peep into the well," exclaimed the other,
overwhelmed by enthusiasm. " When shall I get at
him ? " he asked, clenching his fist.
" In the next world," answered the astrologer. " He
died four months ago in a far-off town. You will never
see any more of him." The other groaned on hearing
it. The astrologer proceeded :
" Guru Nayak "
" You know my name ! " the other said, taken aback.
6 AN ASTROLOGER'S DAY
" As I know all other things. Guru Nayak, listen
carefully to what I have to say. Your village is two
day's journey due north of this town. Take the next
train and be gone. I see once again great danger to
your life if you go from home." He took out a pinch
of sacred ash and held it to him. " Rub it on your
forehead and go home. Never travel southward again,
and you will live to be a hundred."
" Why should I leave home again ? " the other said
reflectively. " I was only going away now and then to
look for him and to choke out his life if I met him."
He shook his head regretfully. " He has escaped my
hands. I hope at least he died as he deserved."
" Yes," said the astrologer. " He was crushed under
a lorry." The other looked gratified to hear it.
The place was deserted by the time the astrologer
picked up his articles and put them into his bag. The
green shaft was also gone, leaving the place in darkness
and silence. The stranger had gone off into the night,
after giving the astrologer a handful of coins.
It was nearly midnight when the astrologer reached
home. His wife was waiting for him at the door and
demanded an explanation. He flung the coins at her
and said : " Count them. One man gave all that."
"Twelve and a half annas," she said, counting. She
was overjoyed. " I can buy some jaggery and coconut
tomorrow. The child has been asking for sweets for so
many days now. I will prepare some nice stuff for her."
" The swine has cheated me ! He promised me a
rupee," said the astrologer. She looked up at him.
" You look worried. What is wrong ? "
After dinner, sitting on the pyol, he told her : " Do
you know a great load is gone from me today? I
AN ASTROLOGER'S DAY 7
thought I had the blood of a man on my hands all these
years. That was the reason why I ran away from
home, settled here, and married you. He is alive."
She gasped. " You tried to kill ! "
" Yes, in our village, when I was a silly youngster.
We drank, gambled, and quarrelled badly one day
why think of it now ? Time to sleep," he said, yawning,
and stretched himself on the pyol.
THE MISSING MAIL
THOUGH his beat covered Vinayak Mudali Street
and its four parallel roads, it took him nearly six
hours before he finished his round and returned to the
head office in Market Road to deliver accounts. He
allowed himself to get mixed up with the fortunes of
the persons to whom he was carrying letters. At No.
13, Kabir Street, lived the man who had come half-way
up the road to ask for a letter for so many years now.
Thanappa had seen him as a youngster, and had
watched him day by day greying on the pial, sitting
there and hoping for a big prize to come his way through
solving crossword puzzles. " No prize yet," he
announced to him every day. " But don't be dis-
heartened." " Your interest has been delayed this
month somehow," he said to another. " Your son at
Hyderabad has written again, madam. How many
children has he now ? " "I did not know that you
had applied for this Madras job ; you haven't cared
to tell me ! It doesn't matter. When I bring you
your appointment order you must feed me with coconut
payasam" And at each of these places he stopped for
nearly half an hour. Especially if anyone received
money orders, he just settled down quite nicely, with
his bags and bundles spread about him, and would not
rise till he gathered an idea of how and where every
rupee was going. If it was a hot day he sometimes
THE MISSING MAIL 9
asked for a tumbler of buttermilk and sat down to
enjoy it. Everybody liked him on his beat. He was
a part and parcel of their existence, their hopes,
aspirations, and activities.
Of all his contacts, the one with which he was most
intimately bound up was No. 10, Vinayak Mudali
Street. Rumanujam was a senior clerk in the Revenue
Division Office, and Thanappa had carried letters to
that address for over a generation now. His earliest
association with Ramanujam was years and years ago.
Ramanujam's wife was away in the village. A card
arrived for Ramanujam. Thanappa, as was his
custom, glanced through it at the sorting table itself ;
and, the moment they were ready to start out, went
straight to Vinayak Mudali Street, though in the
ordinary course over 150 addresses preceded it. He
went straight to Ramanujam's house, knocked on the
door and shouted : " Postman, sir, postman." When
Ramanujam opened it, he said : " Give me a handful
of sugar before I give you this card. Happy father !
After all these years of prayers ! Don't complain that
it is a daughter. Daughters are God's gift, you know.
. . . Kamakshi lovely name ! "
" Kamakshi," he addressed the tall, bashful girl,
years later, " get your photo ready. Ah, so shy !
Here is your grandfather's card asking for your photo.
Why should he want it, unless it be . . ."
" The old gentleman writes rather frequently now,
doesn't he, sir ? " he asked Ramanujam, as he handed
him his letter and waited for him to open the envelope
and go through its contents. Ramanujam looked
worried after reading it. The postman asked : " I
hope it's good news ? " He leaned against the veranda
io THE MISSING MAIL
pillar, with a stack of undelivered letters still under his
arm. Ramanujam said : " My father-in-law thinks I
am not sufficiently active in finding a husband for my
daughter. He has tried one or two places and failed.
He thinks I am very indifferent. . . ." " Elderly
people have their own anxiety," the postman replied.
" The trouble is," said Ramanujam, " that he has set
apart five thousand rupees for this girl's marriage and
is worrying me to find a husband for her immediately.
But money is not everything. . . ." " No, no,"
echoed the postman ; " unless the destined hour is at
hand, nothing can help. . . ."
Day after day for months Thanappa delivered the
letters and waited to be told the news : " Same old
news, Thanappa. . . . Horoscopes do not agree. . . .
They are demanding too much. . . . Evidently they,
do not approve of her appearance." " Appearance !
She looks like a queen. Unless one is totally blind
. . ." the postman retorted angrily. The season
would be closing, with only three more auspicious dates,
the last being May 2Oth. The girl would be seventeen
in a few days. The reminders from her grandfather
were becoming fiercer. Ramanujam had exhausted
all the possibilities and had drawn a blank everywhere.
He looked helpless and miserable. " Postman," he
said, " I don't think there is a son-in-law for me
anywhere. . . ."
" Oh, don't utter inauspicious words, sir," the post-
man said. " When God wills it . . ." He reflected
for a while and said : " There is a boy in Delhi earning
two hundred rupees. Makunda of Temple Street was
after him. Makunda and you are of the same sub-
caste, I believe . . ."
THE MISSING MAIL 11
" They have been negotiating for months now.
Over a hundred letters have passed between them
already. . . . But I know they are definitely breaking
off. ... It is over some money question. . . . They
have written their last message on a postcard and it
has infuriated these people all the more. As if post-
cards were an instrument of insult ! I have known
most important communications being written even on
picture postcards ; when Rajappa went to America
two years ago he used to write to his sons every week
on picture postcards. ..." After this digression he
came back to the point. " I will ask Makunda to give
me the horoscope. Let us see. . . ." Next day he
brought the horoscope with him. " The boy's parents
are also in Delhi, so you can write to them immediately.
No time to waste now."
A ray of hope touched Ramanujam's family.
" I have still a hundred letters to deliver, but I came
here first because I saw this Delhi postmark. . . .
Open it and tell me what they have written," said
Thanappa. He trembled with suspense. " How
prompt these people are ! So they approve of the
photo ! Who wouldn't ? " "A letter every day ! I
might as well apply for leave till Kamakshi's marriage
is over . . ." he said another day. " You are already
talking as if it were coming off tomorrow ! God knows
how many hurdles we have to cross now. Liking a
photo does not prove anything. . . ."
The family council was discussing an important
question : whether Ramanujam should go to Madras,
taking the girl with him, and meet the party, who could
come down for a day from Delhi. The family was
divided over the question. Ramanujam, his mother,
and his wife none of them had defined views on the
12 THE MISSING MAIL
question, but yet they opposed each other vehemently.
" We shall be the laughing-stock of the town," said
Ramanujam's wife, " if we take the girl out to be shown
round. . . ."
" What queer notions ! If you stand on all these
absurd antiquated formalities, we shall never get any-
where near a marriage. It is our duty to take the girl
over even to Delhi if necessary. . . ." " It is your
pleasure, then ; you can do what you please ; why
consult me ? . . ."
Tempers were at their worst, and no progress seemed
possible. Time was marching. The postman had got
into the habit of dropping in at the end of his day's
work, and joining in the council. " I am a third party.
Listen to me," he said. " Sir, please take the train to
Madras immediately. What you cannot achieve by a
year's correspondence you can do in an hour's meeting."
" Here is a letter from Madras, madam. I am sure
it is from your husband. What is the news ? " He
handed the cover to Ramanujam's wife, and she took
it in to read. He said : " I have some registered
letters for those last houses. I will finish my round,
and come back. . . ." He returned as promised.
" Have they met, madam ? "
" Yes, Kamakshi's father has written that they have
met the girl, and from their talk Kamakshi's father
infers they are quite willing. . . ."
" Grand news ! I will offer a coconut to our
"But," the lady added, half overwhelmed with
happiness and half worried, " there is this difficulty.
We had an idea of doing it during next Thai month.
. . . It will be so difficult to hurry through the
arrangements now. But they say that if the marriage
THE MISSING MAIL 13
is done it must be done on the twentieth of May. If
it is postponed the boy can't many for three years.
He is being sent away for some training. . . ."
" The old gentleman is as good as his word/' the
postman said, delivering an insurance cover to Rama-
nujam. " He has given the entire amount. You can't
complain of lack of funds now. Go ahead. I'm so
happy you have his approval. More than their money,
we need their blessings, sir. I hope he has sent his
heartiest blessings. . . ." " Oh yes, oh yes," replied
Ramanujam, " My father-in-law seems to be very
happy at this proposal. . . ."
A five-thousand-rupee marriage was a big affair for
Malgudi. Ramanujam, with so short a time before
him, and none to share the task of arrangements, became
distraught. As far as it could go, Thanappa placed
himself at his service during all his off hours. He cut
short his eloquence, advices, and exchanges in other
houses. He never waited for anyone to come up and
receive the letters. He just tossed them through a
window or an open door with a stentorian " Letter,
sir." If they stopped him and asked : " What is the
matter with you ? In such a hurry ! " , " Yes, leave
me alone till the twentieth of May. I will come and
squat in your house after that " and he was off.
Ramanujam was in great tension. He trembled with
anxiety as the day approached nearer. " It must go
on smoothly. Nothing should prove a hindrance."
" Do not worry, sir ; it will go through happily, by
God's grace. You have given them everything they
wanted in cash, presents, and style. They are good
people. . . ."
" It is not about that. It is the very last date for the
year. If for some reason some obstruction comes up,
i 4 THE MISSING MAIL
it is all finished for ever. The boy goes away for three
years. I don't think either of us would be prepared
to bind ourselves to wait for three years."
It was four hours past the Muhurtam on the day of
the wedding. A quiet had descended on the gathering.
The young smart bridegroom from Delhi was seated
in a chair under the pandal. Fragrance of sandal, and
flowers, and holy smoke, hung about the air. People
were sitting around the bridegroom talking. Thanappa
appeared at the gate loaded with letters. Some young
men ran up to him demanding : " Postman !
Letters ? " He held them off. " Get back. I know
to whom to deliver." He walked up to the bridegroom
and held up to him a bundle of letters very respectfully.
" These are all greetings and blessings from well-
wishers, I believe, sir, and my own go with every one
of them. . . ." He seemed very proud of performing
this task, and looked very serious. The bridegroom
looked up at him with an amused smile and muttered :
" Thanks." " We are all very proud to have your
distinguished self as a son-in-law of this house. I have
known that child, Kamakshi, ever since she was a day
old, and I knew she would always get a distinguished
husband," added the postman, and brought his palms
together in a salute, and moved into the house to
deliver other letters and to refresh himself in the kitchen
with tiffin and coffee.
Ten days later he knocked on the door and, with a
grin, handed Kamakshi her first letter : " Ah, scented
envelope ! I knew it was coming when the mail van
was three stations away. I have seen hundreds like
this. Take it from me. Before he has written the
tenth letter he will command you to pack up and join
him, and you will grow a couple of wings and fly away
THE MISSING MAIL 15
that very day, and forget for ever Thanappa and this
street, isn't it so ? " Kamakshi blushed, snatched the
letter from his hands, and ran in to read it. He said,
turning away : " I don't think there is any use waiting
for you to finish the letter and tell me its contents."
On a holiday, when he was sure Ramanujam would
be at home, Thanappa knocked on the door and handed
him a card. " Ah ! " cried Ramanujam. " Bad
news, Thanappa. My uncle, my father's brother, is
very ill in Salem, and they want me to start im-
" I'm very sorry to hear it, sir," said Thanappa, and
handed him a telegram. " Here's another. . . ."
Ramanujam cried : " A telegram ! " He glanced
at it and screamed : " Oh, he is dead ! " He sat down
on the pial, unable to stand the shock. Thanappa
looked equally miserable. Ramanujam rallied,
gathered himself up, and turned to go in. Thanappa
said : " One moment, sir. I have a confession to
make. See the date on the card."
" May the nineteenth, nearly fifteen days ago ! "
" Yes, sir, and the telegram followed next day that
is, on the day of the marriage. I was unhappy to see
it. ... c But what has happened has happened,' I
said to myself, and kept it away, fearing that it might
interfere with the wedding. . . ."
Ramanujam glared at the postman and said : " I
would not have cared to go through the marriage when
he was dying. . . ." The postman stood with bowed
head and mumbled : " You can complain if you like,
sir. They will dismiss me. It is a serious offence."
He turned and descended the steps and went down the
street on his rounds. Ramanujam watched him dully
for a while and shouted : " Postman ! " Thanappa
i6 THE MISSING MAIL
turned round ; Ramanujam cried : " Don't think that
I intend to complain. I am only sorry you have
done this. . . ,"
" I understand your feelings, sir," replied the post-
man, disappearing around a bend.
THE DOCTOR'S WORD
PEOPLE came to him when the patient was on his
last legs. Dr. Raman often burst out, " Why
couldn't you have come a day earlier ? " The reason
was obvious visiting fee twenty-five rupees, and more
than that people liked to shirk the fact that the time
had come to call in Dr. Raman ; for them there was
something ominous in the very association. As a result
when the big man came on the scene it was always a
quick decision one way or another. There was no
scope or time for any kind of wavering or whitewashing.
Long years of practice of this kind had bred in the
doctor a certain curt truthfulness ; for that very reason
his opinion was valued ; he was not a mere doctor
expressing an opinion but a judge pronouncing a
verdict. The patient's life hung on his words. This
never unduly worried Dr. Raman. He never believed
that agreeable words ever saved lives. He did not
think it was any of his business to provide unnecessary
dope when as a matter of course Nature would teU
them the truth in a few hours. However, when he
glimpsed the faintest sign of hope, he rolled up his
sleeve and stepped into the arena : it might be hours
or days, but he never withdrew till he wrested the
prize from Tama's hands.
Today, standing over a bed, the doctor felt that he
himself needed someone to tell him soothing lies. He
mopped his brow with his kerchief and sat down in
i8 THE DOCTOR'S WORD
the chair beside the bed. On the bed lay his dearest
friend in the world : Gopal. They had known each
other for forty years now, starting with their Kinder-
garten days. They could not, of course, meet as much
as they wanted, each being wrapped in his own family
and profession. Occasionally, on a Sunday, Gopal
would walk into the consulting room, and wait
patiently in a corner till the doctor was free. And
then they would dine together, see a picture, and talk
of each other's life and activities. It was a classic
friendship standing over, untouched by changing
times, circumstances, and activities.
In his busy round of work, Dr. Raman had not
noticed that Gopal had not called in for over three
months now. He just remembered it when he saw
GopaPs son sitting on a bench in the consulting hall,
one crowded morning. Dr. Raman could not talk to
him for over an hour. When he got up and was about
to pass on to the operation room, he called up the
young man and asked, " What brings you here, sir ? "
The youth was nervous and shy. " Mother sent
" What can I do for you ? "
" Father is iU ..."
It was an operation day and he was not free till
three in the afternoon. He rushed off straight from
the clinic to his friend's house, in Lawley Extension.
Gopal lay in bed as if in sleep. The doctor stood
over him and asked Gopal's wife, " How long has he
been in bed ? "
" A month and a half, doctor."
" Who is attending him ? "
" A doctor in the next street. He comes down once
in three days and gives him medicine."
THE DOCTOR'S WORD 19
" What is his name ? " He had never heard of
him. " Someone I don't know, but I wish he had
had the goodness to tell me about it. Why, why,
couldn't you have sent me word earlier ? "
" We thought you would be busy and did not wish
to trouble you unnecessarily." They were apologetic
and miserable. There was hardly any time to be lost.
He took off his coat and opened his bag. He took out
an injection tube, the needle sizzled over the stove.
The sick man's wife whimpered in a corner and
essayed to ask questions.
" Please don't ask questions," snapped the doctor.
He looked at the children who were watching the
sterilizer, and said, " Send them all away somewhere,
except the eldest."
He shot in the drug, sat back in his chair, and
gazed on the patient's face for over an hour. The
patient still remained motionless. The doctor's face
gleamed with perspiration, and his eyelids drooped
with fatigue. The sick man's wife stood in a corner
and watched silently. She asked timidly, " Doctor,
shall I make some coffee for you ? " " No," he
replied, although he felt famished, having missed his
midday meal. He got up and said, " I will be back
in a few minutes. Don't disturb him on any account."
He picked up his bag and went to his car. In a
quarter of an hour he was back, followed by an assistant
and a nurse. The doctor told the lady of the house,
" I have to perform an operation."
" Why, why ? Why ? " she asked faintly.
" I will tell you all that soon. Will you leave your
son here to help us, and go over to the next house and
stay there till I call you ? "
The lady felt giddy and sank down on the floor,
ao THE DOCTOR'S WORD
unable to bear the strain. The nurse attended to her
and led her out.
At about eight in the evening the patient opened his
eyes and stirred slightly in bed. The assistant was
overjoyed. He exclaimed enthusiastically, " Sir, he
will pull through." The doctor looked at him coldly
and whispered : " I would give anything to see him
through but, but the heart . . ."
" The pulse has improved, Sir."
" Well, well," replied the doctor. " Don't trust it.
It is only a false flash-up, very common in these
cases." He ruminated for a while and added, " If
the pulse will keep up till eight in the morning, it will
go on for the next forty years, but I doubt very
much if we shall see anything of it at all after two
He sent away the assistant and sat beside the patient.
At about eleven the patient opened his eyes and
smiled at his friend. He showed a slight improvement,
he was able to take in a little food. A great feeling
of relief and joy went through the household. They
swarmed around the doctor and poured out their
gratitude. He sat in his seat beside the bed, gazing
sternly at the patient's face, hardly showing any signs
of hearing what they were saying to him. The sick
man's wife asked, " Is he now out of danger ? "
Without turning his head the doctor said, " Give
glucose and brandy every forty minutes ; just a couple
of spoons will do." The lady went away to the kitchen.
She felt restless. She felt she must know the truth
whatever it was. Why was the great man so evasive ?
The suspense was unbearable. Perhaps he could not
speak so near the patient's bed. She beckoned to him
from the kitchen doorway. The doctor rose and went
THE DOCTOR'S WORD 21
over. She asked, " What about him now ? How is
he ? " The doctor bit his lips and replied, looking at
the floor, " Don't get excited. Unless you must
know about it, don't ask now." Her eyes opened
wide in terror. She clasped her hands together and
implored : " Tell me the truth." The doctor replied,
" I would rather not talk to you now." He turned
round and went back to his chair. A terrible wailing
shot through the still house ; the patient stirred and
looked about in bewilderment. The doctor got up
again, went over to the kitchen door, drew it in
securely and shut off the wail.
When the doctor resumed his seat the patient asked
in the faintest whisper possible, " Is that someone
crying ? " The doctor advised, " Don't exert your*
self. You mustn't talk." He felt the pulse. It was
already agitated by the exertion. The patient asked,
" Am I going ? Don't hide it from me." The doctor
made a deprecating noise and sat back in his chair.
He had never faced a situation like this. It was not
in his nature to whitewash. People attached great
value to his word because of that. He stole a look at
the other. The patient motioned a finger to draw
him nearer and whispered, " I must know how long I
am going to last. I must sign the will. It is all ready.
Ask my wife for the despatch box. You must sign as
" Oh ! " the doctor exclaimed. " You are exerting
yourself too much. You must be quieter." He felt
idiotic to be repeating it. " How fine it would be,"
he reflected, " to drop the whole business and run
away somewhere without answering anybody any
question ! " The patient clutched the doctor's wrist
with his weak fingers and said, " Ramu, it is my good
M THE DOCTOR'S WORD
fortune that you are here at this moment. I can trust
your word. I can't leave my property unsettled.
That will mean endless misery for my wife and children.
You know all about Subbiah and his gang. Let me
sign before it is too late. Tell me. . . ."
" Yes, presently," replied the doctor. He walked
off to his car, sat in the back seat and reflected. He
looked at his watch. Midnight. If the will was to
be signed, it must be done within the next two hours,
or never. He could not be responsible for a mess
there ; he knew too well the family affairs and about
those wolves, Subbiah and his gang . . . But what
could he do ? If he asked him to sign the Will, it
would virtually mean a death sentence and destroy the
thousandth part of a chance that the patient had of
survival. He got down from the car and went in.
He resumed his seat in the chair. The patient was
staring at him appealingly. The doctor said to him-
self, " If my word can save his life, he shall not die.
The will be damned." He called, " Gopal, listen."
This was the first time he was going to do a piece of
acting before a patient, simulate a feeling, and conceal
his judgment. He stooped over the patient and said
with deliberate emphasis, " Don't worry about the
will now. You are going to live. Your heart is
absolutely sound." A new glow suffused the patient's
face as he heard it. He asked in a tone of relief, " Do
you say so ? If it comes from your lips it must be
true . . ."
The doctor said, " Qjuite right. You are improving
every second. Sleep in peace. You must not exert
yourself on any account. You must sleep very soundly.
I will sec you in the morning." The patient looked at
him gratefully for a moment and then dosed his eyes.
THE DOCTOR'S WORD 23
The doctor picked up his bag and went out shutting
the door softly behind him.
On his way home he stopped for a moment at his
hospital, called out his assistant, and said, " That
Lawley Extension case. You might expect the collapse
any second now. Go there with a tube of ... in
hand, and give it in case the struggle is too hard at
the end. Hurry up/'
Next morning he was back at Lawley Extension at
ten. From his car he made a dash for the sick bed.
The patient was awake and looked very well. The
assistant reported satisfactory pulse. The doctor put
his tube at his heart, listened for a while, and told the
sick man's wife, " Don't look so unhappy, lady. Your
husband will live to be ninety." When they were
going back to the hospital, the assistant sitting beside
him in the car asked, " Is he going to live, sir ? "
" I will bet on it. He will live to be ninety. He
has turned the corner. How he has survived this
attack will be a puzzle to me all my life," replied
1 IA7HEN a dozen persons question openly or slyly
VV a man's sanity, he begins to entertain serious
doubts himself. This is what happened to ex-gateman
Govind Singh. And you could not blame the public
either. What could you do with a man who carried
about in his hand a registered postal cover and asked :
" Please tell me what there is inside ? " The obvious
answer was : " Open it and see . . ." He seemed
horrified at this suggestion. " Oh, no, no, can't do
it," he declared and moved off to another friend and
acquaintance. Everywhere the suggestion was the
same till he thought everyone had turned mad. And
then somebody said : " If you don't like to open it and
yet want to know what is inside you must take it to
the X-ray Institute." This was suggested by an
ex-compounder who lived in the next street.
"What is it?" asked Govind Singh. It was
explained to him. " Where is it ? " He was directed
to the City X-ray Institute.
But before saying anything further about his pro-
gress, it would be usefiil to go back to an earlier
chapter in his history. After war service in 1914-18,
he came to be recommended for a gatekeeper's post at
Engladia's. He liked the job very much. He was
given a khaki uniform, a resplendent band across his
shoulder and a short stick. He gripped the stick and
GATEMAN'S GIFT 25
sat down on a stool at the entrance to the office. And
when his chief's car pulled up at the gate he stood at
attention and gave a military salute. The office
consisted of a staff numbering over a hundred and as
they trooped in and out every day he kept an eye on
them. At the end of the day he awaited the footsteps
of the General Manager coining down the stairs and
rose stiffly and stood at attention, and after he left the
hundreds of staff poured out. The doors were shut ;
Singh carried his stool in, placed it under the staircase,
and placed his stick across it. Then he came out
and the main door was locked and sealed. In this
way he had spent twenty-five years of service, and
then he begged to be pensioned off. He would not
have thought of retirement yet, but for the fact that
he found his sight and hearing playing tricks on him ;
he could not catch the Manager's footsteps on the
stairs, and it was hard to recognize him even at ten
yards. He was ushered into the presence of the chief,
who looked up for a moment from his papers and
muttered : " We are very pleased with your work for
us, and the company will give you a pension of twelve
rupees for your life . . ." Singh clicked his heels,
saluted, turned on his heel and went out of the room,
with his heart brimming with gratitude and pride.
This was the second occasion when the great man had
spoken to him, the first being on the first day of his
service. As he had stood at his post, the chief, entering
the office just then, looked up for a moment and asked
" Who are you ? "
" I'm the new gatekeeper, master," he had answered.
And he spoke again only on this day. Though so
little was said, Singh felt electrified on both
occasions by the words of his master. In Singh's eyes
26 GATEMAN'S GIFT
the chief had acquired a sort of Godhood, and it would
be quite adequate if a god spoke to one only once or
twice in a lifetime. In moments of contemplation
Singh's mind dwelt on the words of his master, and
on his personality.
His life moved on smoothly. The pension together
with what his wife earned by washing and sweeping in
a couple of houses was quite sufficient for him. He
ate his food, went out and met a few friends, slept, and
spent some evenings sitting at a cigarette shop which
his cousin owned. This tenor of life was disturbed on
the first of every month when he donned his old
khaki suit, walked to his old office, and salaamed the
Accountant at the counter and received his pension.
Sometimes if it was closing he waited on the roadside
for the General Manager to come down, and saluted
him as he got into his car.
There was a lot of time all around him, an immense
sea of leisure. In this state he made a new discovery
about himself, that he could make fascinating models
out of clay and wood dust. The discovery came
suddenly, when one day a child in the neighbourhood
brought to him its little doll for repair. He not only
repaired it but made a new thing of it. This discovery
pleased him so much that he very soon became
absorbed in it. His backyard gave him a plentiful
supply of pliant clay, and the carpenter's shop next
to his cousin's cigarette shop sawdust. He purchased
paint for a few annas. And lo ! he found his hours
gliding. He sat there in the front part of his home,
bent over his clay, and brought into existence a
miniature universe ; all the colours of life were there,
all the forms and creatures, but of the size of his
middle finger ; whole villages and towns were there,
GATEMAN'S GIFT 27
all the persons he had seen passing before his office
when he was sentry there that beggar woman coming
at midday, and that cucumber vendor ; he had the
eye of a cartoonist for human faces. Everything went
down into clay. It was a wonderful miniature re-
flection of the world ; and he mounted them neatly
on thin wooden slices, which enhanced their attractive-
ness. He kept these in his cousin's shop and they
attracted huge crowds every day and sold very briskly.
More than the sales Singh felt an ecstasy when he
saw admiring crowds clustering around his handiwork.
On his next pension day he carried to his office a
street scene (which he ranked as his best), and handed
it over the counter to the Accountant with the request :
" Give this to the Sahib, please ! "
" All right,*' said the Accountant with a smile. It
created a sensation in the office and disturbed the
routine of office working for nearly half an hour. On
the next pension day he carried another model
(children at play) and handed it over the counter.
" Did Sahib like the last one ? "
"Yes, he liked it."
" Please give this one to him " and he passed it
over the counter. He made it a convention to carry
on every pension day an offering for his master, and
each time his greatest reward was the Accountant's
stock reply to his question : " What did the Sahib
say ? "
" He said it was very good."
At last he made his masterpiece. A model of his
office frontage with himself at his post, a car at the
entrance, and the chief getting down : this composite
model was so realistic that while he sat looking at it,
he seemed to be carried back to his office days. He
28 GATEMAN'S GIFT
passed it over the counter on his pension day and it
created a very great sensation in the office. " Fellow,
you have not left yourself out, either ! " people cried
and looked admiringly at Singh. A sudden fear seized
Singh and he asked : " The master won't be angry,
" No, no, why should he be ? " said the Accountant,
and Singh received his pension and went home.
A week later when he was sitting on the fyol
kneading clay, the postman came and said : " A
registered letter for you . . ."
" For me ! " Any letter would have upset Singh ;
he had received less than three letters in his lifetime,
and each time it was a torture for him till the contents
were read out. Now a registered letter ! This was his
first registered letter. " Only lawyers send registered
letters, isn't it so ? "
" Usually," said the postman.
Please take it back. I don't want it," said Singh.
Shall I say 'Refused'?" asked the postman.
"No, no," said Singh. "Just take it back and say
you have not found me . . ."
" That I can't do . . ." said the postman looking
Singh seemed to have no option but to scrawl his
signature and receive the packet. He sat gloomily
gazing at the floor. His wife who had gone out and
just returned saw him in this condition and asked :
"What is it?" His voice choked as he replied : "It
has come." He flung at her the registered letter.
"What is it? "she asked. He said: "How should I
know. Perhaps our ruin . . ." He broke down.
His wife watched him for a moment, went in to attend
to some domestic duty and returned, still found him
GATEMAN'S GIFT 29
in the same condition, and asked : " Why not open
it and see, ask someone to read it ? " He threw up his
arms in horror : " Woman, you don't know what you
are saying. It cannot be opened. They have perhaps
written that my pension is stopped, and God knows
what else the Sahib has said . . ."
" Why not go to the office and find out from them ? "
" Not I ! I will never show my face there again
. . ." replied Singh. " I have lived without a single
remark being made against me, all my life. Now ! " He
shuddered at the thought of it. " I knew I was
getting into trouble when I made that office model
. . ." After deeper reflection he said : " Every time
I took something there, people crowded round, stopped
all work for nearly an hour . . . That must also have
reached the Sahib's ears."
He wandered about saying the same thing, with the
letter in his pocket. He lost taste for food, wandered
about unkempt, with his hair standing up like a halo
an unaccustomed sight, his years in military service
having given him a habitual tidiness. His wife lost all
peace of mind and became miserable about him. He
stood at the cross-roads, clutching the letter in his
hand. He kept asking everyone he came across :
" Tell me, what there is in this ? " but he would not
brook the suggestion to open it and see its contents.
So forthwith Singh found his way to the City X-ray
Institute at Race Course Road. As he entered the
gate he observed dozens of cars parked along the
drive, and a Gurkha watchman at the gate. Some
people were sitting on sofas reading books and journals.
They turned and threw a brief look at him and
resumed their studies. As Singh stood uncertainly
at the doorway, an assistant came up and asked :
SO GATEMAN'S GIFT
" What do you want ? " Singh gave a salute, held
up the letter uncertainly and muttered : " Can I
know what is inside this ? " The assistant made the
obvious suggestion. But Singh replied : " They said
you could tell me what's inside without opening it "
The assistant asked : " Where do you come from ? "
Singh explained his life, work and outlook and con-
cluded : " I've lived without remark all my life. I
knew trouble was coming " There were tears on
his cheeks. The assistant looked at him curiously as
scores of others had done before, smiled, and said :
" Go home and rest. You are not all right . . . Go,
" Can't you say what is in this ? " Singh asked
pathetically. The assistant took it in his hand,
examined it and said : " Shall I open it ? " " No,
no, no," Singh cried and snatched it back. There was
a look of terror in his eyes. The assembly looked up
from their pages and watched him with mild amuse-
ment in their eyes. The assistant kindly put his arms
on his shoulder and led him out. " You get well first,
and then come back. I tell you you are not all
Walking back home, he pondered over it. " Why
are they all behaving like this, as if I were a mad
man ? " When this word came to his mind, he
stopped abruptly in the middle of the road, and cried :
."Oh! That's it, is that it? Mad! Mad!" He
shook his head gleefully as if the full truth had just
dawned upon him. He now understood the looks that
people threw at him. " Oh ! oh ! " he cried aloud.
He laughed. He felt a curious relief at this realization.
" I have been mad and didn't know it . . ." He cast
his mind back. Every little action of his for the last
GATEMAN'S GIFT 31
so many days seemed mad ; particularly the doll-
making. " What sane man would make clay dolls
after 25 years of respectable service in an office ? " He
felt a tremendous freedom of limbs, and didn't feel it
possible to walk at an ordinary pace. He wanted to fly.
He swung his arms up and down and ran on with a
whoop. He ran through the Market Road. When
people stood about and watched he cried : " Hey,
don't laugh at a mad man, for who knows, you will
also be mad when you come to make clay dolls," and
charged into their midst with a war cry. When he
saw children coming out of a school, he felt it would
be nice to amuse their young hearts by behaving like
a tiger. So he fell on his hands and kneels and
crawled up to them with a growl.
He went home in a terrifying condition. His wife
who was grinding chilly in the backyard looked up
and asked : " What is this ? " His hair was covered
with street dust ; his body was splashed with mud.
He could not answer because he choked with mirth
as he said : " Fancy what has happened ! "
"What is it?"
" I'm mad, mad." He looked at his work-basket
in a corner, scooped out the clay and made a helmet
of it and put it on his head. Ranged on the floor
was his latest handiwork. After his last visit to the
office he had been engaged in making a model village.
It was a resplendent group ; a dun road, red tiles,
green coconut trees swaying, and the colour of the
sarees of the village women carrying water pots. He
derived the inspiration for it from a memory of his own
village days. It was the most enjoyable piece of
work that he had so far undertaken. He lived in a
kind of ecstasy while doing it. " I am going to keep
32 GATEMAN'S GIFT
this for myself. A memento of my father's village,"
he declared. " I will show it at an exhibition, where
they will give me a medal.' 9 He guarded it like a
treasure : when it was wet he never allowed his wife
to walk within ten yards of it : " Keep off, we don't
want your foot dust for this village . . ."
Now in his madness, he looked down on it. He
raised his foot and stamped everything down into a
multi-coloured jam. They were still half wet. He
saw a donkey grazing in the street. He gathered up
the jam and flung it at the donkey with the remark :
" Eat this if you like. It is a nice village . . ." And
he went out on a second round. This was a quieter
outing. He strode on at an even pace, breathing
deeply, with the clay helmet on, out of which peeped
his grey hair, his arms locked behind, his fingers
clutching the fateful letter, his face tilted towards the
sky. He walked down the Market Road, with a
feeling that he was the sole occupant of this globe :
his madness had given him a sense of limitless freedom,
strength and buoyancy. The remarks and jeers of
the crowds gaping at him did not in the least touch
While he walked thus, his eye fell on the bulb of a
tall street lamp : " Bulb of the size of a Papaya fruit ! "
he muttered and chuckled. It had been a long
cherished desire in him to fling a stone at it ; now he
felt, in his joyous and free condition, that he was free
from the trammels of convention and need not push
back any inclination. He picked up a pebble and
threw it with good aim. The shattering noise of glass
was as music to his ears. A policeman put his hand
on his shoulder : " Why did you do it ? " Singh
looked indignant : " I like to crack glass Papaya fruit,
GATEMAN'S GIFT 33
that is all/ 1 was the reply. The constable said :
" Come to the station."
" Oh, yes, when I was in Mesopotamia they put me
on half ration once," he said, and walked on to the
station. He paused, tilted his head to the side and
remarked : " This road is not straight ..." A few
carriages and cycles were coming up to him. He
found that everything was wrong about them. They
seemed to need some advice in the matter. He stopped
in the middle of the road, stretched out his arms and
shouted : " Halt ! " The carriages stopped, the
cyclists jumped off and Singh began a lecture : " When
I was in Mesopotamia I will tell you fellows who
don't know anything about anything." The police-
man dragged him away to the side, and waved to the
traffic to resume. One of the cyclists who resumed,
jumped off the saddle again and came towards him
with : " Why ! It is Singh, Singh, what fancy dress
is this ? What is the matter ? " Even through the
haze of his insane vision Singh could recognize the
voice and the person the Accountant at the office.
Singh clicked his heels and gave a salute : " Excuse
me sir, didn't intend to stop you. You may pass . . ."
He pointed the way generously, and the Accountant
saw the letter in his hand. He recognized it although
it was mud-stained and crumpled.
" Singh, you got our letter ? "
" Yes, sir, Pass. Do not speak of it . , ."
" What is the matter ? " He snatched it from his
hand. " Why haven't you opened it ! " He tore
open the envelope and took out of it a letter and
read aloud : " The General Manager greatly apprec-
iates the very artistic models you have sent, and he is
pleased to sanction a reward of Rs. 100 and hopes
34 GATEMAN'S GIFT
it will be an encouragement for you to keep up this
It was translated to him word for word, and the
enclosure, a cheque for one hundred rupees, was handed
to him. A big crowd gathered to watch this scene.
Singh pressed the letter to his eyes. He beat his
brow, and wailed : " Tell me, sir, am I mad or not ? "
" You look quite well, you aren't mad," said the
Accountant. Singh fell at his feet and said with tears
choking his voice : " You are a god, sir, to say that I
am not mad. I am so happy to hear it."
On the next pension day he turned up spruce as
ever at the office counter. As they handed him the
envelope they asked : " What toys are you making
now ? "
" Nothing sir. Never again. It is no occupation
for a sane man . . ." he said, received his pension,
and stiffly walked out of the office.
THE ROMAN IMAGE
THE Talkative Man said :
Once I was an archaeologist's assistant. I
wandered up and down the country probing, explor-
ing, and digging, in search of antiquities, a most
interesting occupation, although cynics sometimes
called us " grave-diggers." I enjoyed the work
immensely. I had a master who was a famous
archaeologist called Doctor something or other. He
was a superb, timeless being, who lived a thousand
years behind the times, and who wanted neither food
nor roof nor riches if only he was allowed to gaze on
undisturbed at an old coin or chip of a burial urn.
He had torn up the earth in almost all parts of India
and had brought to light very valuable information
concerning the history and outlook of people of
remote centuries. His monographs on each of his
excavations filled several shelves in all the important
libraries. And then, as our good fortune would have
it, he received an inspiration that Malgudi district
was eminently diggable. I am not competent to
explain how he got this idea, but there it was. Word
was brought to me that the great man was staying in
the dak bungalow and was in need of an assistant.
Within an hour of hearing it I stood before the great
man. He was sitting on the floor with the most
crazy collection of articles in front of him pots and
36 THE ROMAN IMAGE
beads and useless coins and palm leaves, all of them
rusty and decaying. He had a lens by his side,
through which he looked at these articles and made
notes. He asked me : " What do you know of the
archaeological factors of your district ? " I blinked.
Honestly I didn't know there was any archaeology in
our place. He looked at me through his old spectacles,
and I realized that my living depended upon my
answer. I mustered up all the knowledge of elementary
history I had acquired in my boyhood, and replied :
" Well, nothing has so far been done in any methodical
manner, although now and then we come across some
ignorant villagers ploughing up old unusual bits of
pottery and metal."
" Really," he asked, pricking up his ears. " And
what do they do with them ? "
" They simply throw them away or give them to
children to play with," I replied.
" Oh, too bad," he muttered. " Why couldn't you
have collected these things in one place ? "
" I will take care to do that hereafter, sir," I said ;
and that settled it. He engaged me on the spot at
fifty rupees a month, and my main business was to
follow him about and help him.
I had my wits alive, and within a month I was in
a position to lead him by the hand. Not the slightest
object escaped my notice. I picked up everything I
saw, cleaned and polished it, and held it up for his
opinion. Most times, I am sorry to confess, they
were useless bits of stuff of known origin namely,
our own times. But I am glad to say that once I
scored a hit.
We camped one week-end at Siral a village sixty
miles from the town. It is a lovely ancient place,
THE ROMAN IMAGE 37
consisting of a hundred houses. Sarayu River winds
its way along the northern boundary of the village.
The river here is broader than it is anywhere else in
the district. On the other bank of the river we have
the beginnings of a magnificent jungle of bamboo
and teak. The most modern structure in the place
was a small two-roomed inspection lodge. The
doctor occupied one room and I the other. We were
scouting the surroundings for a mound under which
was supposed to be a buried city. This discovery was
going to push the earliest known civilization three
centuries farther back and rival Mohenjadaro in
antiquity. We might be pardoned if we set about
our business with some intensity. Our doctor some-
how seemed to possess an inexplicable feeling of
rivalry with the discoverers of Mohenjadaro and such
other places. His greatest desire was to have a
monopoly of the earliest known civilization and place
it where he chose. This seemed to me a slight weak-
ness in his nature, but pardonable in a great man, who
had done so much else in life. This is all beside the
point. Let me get on with the story. One day I
had gone to the river for a bathe. It was an exhilar-
ating evening ; I had done a good day's work, assisting
the doctor to clean up and study a piece of stained
glass picked up in a field outside the village. The
doctor kept gazing at this glass all day. He constantly
shook his head and said : " This is easily the most
important piece of work which has come under my
notice. This bit of glass you see is not ordinary
archaeological stuff, but a very important link. This
piece of glass is really Florentian, which went out of
vogue in A.D. 5. How did this come here ? It is not
found anywhere else in the world. If the identity of
3 8 THE ROMAN IMAGE
this is established properly we may ultimately have a
great deal to say about the early Roman Empire and
this part of India. This will revolutionize our whole
knowledge of history." He talked of nothing but
that the whole day. He trembled with excitement
and lost all taste for food. He kept on muttering :
" We must tread warily and not overlook the slightest
evidence. Keep your eyes open. We are on the eve
of great discoveries. . . ." And I caught this excite-
ment and acquired a permanently searching look.
I was in this state when I plunged into the waters of
Sarayu that evening. I am a good diver. As I went
down my hand struck against a hard object in the
sandy bed. Feeling with my fingers, I found it to
be a stone image. When I came to the surface again
I came up bearing that image with me. Dripping
with water, I sat on the river step, without even
drying myself, and examined the image.
" This takes us on to an entirely new set of possi-
bilities ! " exclaimed the doctor in great joy. He
keenly examined it by our tin lantern. It was a
stone image a foot high, which had acquired a glass-
like smoothness, having been under water for years.
It had an arm, an eye, the nose, and the mouth
missing. There were a few details of ornament and
drapery which the doctor examined with special care.
It was 3 a.m. when he went to bed. An hour later
the doctor peeped in at my doorway and announced :
" This is a Roman statue. How it came to be found
in these parts is an historical fact we have to wrest
from evidence. It is going to give an entirely new
turn to Indian history."
Within the next two months all the important
papers and periodicals in the world published details
THE ROMAN IMAGE 39
of this discovery. Papers were read before historical
associations and conferences. I came to be looked
upon as a sort of saviour of Indian history. For the
doctor insisted upon giving me my due share of fame.
University honours came my way. I was offered
lucrative positions here and there. It was finally
decided that the image was that of a Roman Emperor
called Tiberius II. It would be out' of place to go
into the details that led to this conclusion : but you
need have no doubt that the doctor had excellent
reasons for it. Besides the study of the image itself he
went through some Roman texts which mentioned
For the next few months we toured about a great
deal lecturing on this subject and demonstrating. I
went with my doctor to Madras and started work on
a monograph on the subject. It was to be a monu-
mental work covering over a thousand pages of demy
size, full of photographs and sketches. You can
understand why it should be so big when I tell you
that it was going to be a combined work on early
Roman history, Indian history, archaeology, and
epigraphy. My name was going to appear as the
joint author of the work. I realized that here was
my future fame, position, and perhaps some money
too. The doctor left me in entire charge of this work
and went away to Upper India to continue a piece of
work which he had already been doing. I sat in a
large library the whole day, examining, investigating,
studying, and writing. I became a fairly important
person in learned societies. I worked from seven
in the morning to eleven in the evening almost with-
out a break, and throughout the day I had visits from
people interested in the discovery. Papers and journals
40 THE ROMAN IMAGE
contained paragraphs now and then "Archaeologist
assistant working on monograph . . ." and its
progress was duly reported to the public. And then
there came a time when the press could announce :
" Monograph on which has been working for
months now will be ready for publication in ten days.
It is expected that this is going to make the richest
contribution to Indian history . . ." My fingers
were worn out with writing. My eyes were nearly
gone. I looked forward to the end of the work ; and
then as my doctor wrote : " You can have a holiday
for three months in any hill station you like and
forget the whole business ..." The manuscripts
piled a yard high on my table. It was at this stage
that I had to visit Siral once again. I had to obtain
measurements of the spot where the image was found.
I left my work at that and hurried to the village.
I plunged into the river and came up. I sat on the
river step, still dripping with water, noting down
figures, when a stranger came and sat near me. We
fell to talking, and I told him about my work, in the
hope of drawing out further facts. He was a rustic,
and he listened to me without emotion. At the end
of my narration he remained peculiarly moody and
asked me to repeat facts about the image. He com-
pressed his lips and asked : " Where do you say it
came from ? "
" Where is that ? "
" In Europe," I said. He stood still, puzzled, and
I amplified : " Where the European people live "
" I don't know about that but if it is the image
which you found in these parts I can tell you something
about it. It is without nose and arm, isn't it ? "
THE ROMAN IMAGE 41
I assented, not knowing what was coming. He said :
" Follow me, if you want to know anything more about
this image." He led me up the bank, along a foot
track which wound through the jungle. We reached
a hamlet a mile off. He stopped in front of a little
shrine and said : " That image belonged to this
temple." He led me into the shrine. We had to go
stooping into it because of its narrow doorway and low
roof. At the inner sanctum there was an image of
Mari with a garland of yellow chrysanthemums
around her neck, lit by a faint wick lamp. On one
side of the sanctum doorway stood a dwarapalaka
(doorkeeper) a winged creature a foot high. My
friend pointed at the image and said : " This formed
a pair with the one you picked up, and it used to
adorn that side of the doorway." I looked up where
he pointed. I noticed a pedestal without anything
on it. A doubt seized me. " I want to examine the
figure," I said. He brought down the wick lamp ;
I examined by its flickering light the dwarapalaka.
" Is this exactly like the one which was on that side ? "
It was a superfluous question. This image was
exactly like the image I had found, but without its
" Where was this made ? "
" I had it done by a stone-image maker, a fellow
in another village. You see that hillock ? Its stone
is made into images all over the world, and at its foot
is a village where they make images."
" Are you sure when it was made ? "
" Yes, I gave an advance of twenty rupees for it,
and how that fellow delayed ! I went over to the
village and sat up night and day for two months and
, got the pair done. I watched them take shape before
42 THE ROMAN IMAGE
my eyes. And then we collected about fifty rupees
and gave it to him. We wanted to improve this
temple." I put back the lamp and walked out. I
sat down on the temple step. " Why do you look so
sad? I thought you'd be pleased to know these
things," he said, watching me.
" I am, I am only I've been rather unwell," I
assured him. " Can't you tell me something more
about it : how it came to be found in the river ? "
" Yes, yes," said my friend. " It was carried and
thrown into the river ; it didn't walk down there."
" Oh ! " I exclaimed.
" That is a story. For this we went to the court
and had the priest dismissed and fined. He cannot
come near the temple now. We spent one thousand
rupees in lawyer fees alone ; we were prepared to
spend all our fortune if only to see that priest removed.
It went up to Malgudi court we got a vakil from
" What was wrong with your priest ? "
" No doubt he had a hereditary claim and took up
the work when his father died, but the fellow was a
devil for drink, if ever there was one. Morning till
night he was drinking, and he performed all the puja
in that condition. We did not know what to do with
him. We just tolerated him, hoping that some day
the goddess would teach him a lesson. We did not
like to be too harsh, since he was a poor fellow, and
he went about his duties quietly. But when we added
these two dwarapalakas at the doorway he got a queer
notion in his head. He used to say that the two
doorkeepers constantly harried him by staring at him
wherever he went. He said that their look pricked
him in the neck. Sometimes he would peep in from
THE ROMAN IMAGE 43
within to see if the images were looking away, and
he'd scream, * Ah, still they are watching me,' and
shout at them. This went on for months. In course
of time he began to shudder whenever he had to pass
these doorkeepers. It was an acute moment of
suspense for him when he had to cross that pair and
get into the sanctum. Gradually he complained that
if he ever took his eyes off these figures they butted
him from behind, kicked him, and pulled his hair,
and so forth. He was afraid to look anywhere else
and walked on cautiously with his eyes on the images.
But if he had his eyes on one, the other knocked him
from behind. He showed us bruises and scratches
sometimes. We declared we might treat his complaints
seriously if he ever went into the shrine without a drop
of drink in him. In course of time he started to seek
his own remedy. He carried a small mallet with him,
and whenever he got a knock he returned the blow ;
it fell on a nose today, on an arm tomorrow, and on
an ear another day. We didn't notice his handiwork
for months. Judging from the mallet blows, the
image on the left side seems to have been the greater
" The culmination came when he knocked it off its
pedestal and carried it to the river. Next morning
he declared he saw it walk off and plunge into the
river. He must have felt that this would serve as a
lesson to the other image if it should be thinking of
any trick. But the other image never got its chance.
For we dragged the priest before a law court and had
him sent away."
Thus ended the villager's tale. It took time for me
to recover. I asked : " Didn't you have to pick up
the image from the water and show it to the judge ? "
44 THE ROMAN IMAGE
" No, because the fellow would not tell us where he
had flung it. I did not know till this moment where
exactly it could be found."
When I went back to Madras I was a different man.
The doctor had just returned for a short stay. I told
him everything. He was furious. " We have made
ourselves mighty fools before the whole world," he
I didn't know what to say. I mumbled : "I am
so sorry, sir." He pointed at the pile of manuscripts
on the table and cried : " Throw all that rubbish into
the fire, before we are declared mad. ..." I pushed
the whole pile off the table and applied a match-stick.
We stood frowning at the roaring fire for a moment,
and then he asked, pointing at the image : " And
what will you do with it ? "
" I don't know," I said.
" Drown it. After all, you picked it up from the
water that piece of nonsense ! " he cried.
I had never seen him in such a rage before. I
wrapped the image in a piece of brown paper, carried
it to the seashore, and flung it far into the sea. I hope
it is still rolling about at the bottom of the Bay of
Bengal. I only hope it won't get into some large
fish and come back to the study table ! Later a brief
message appeared in all the important papers : " The
manuscript on which Doctor and assistant were
engaged has been destroyed, and the work will be
The doctor gave me two months' salary and bade
THE BLIND DOG
IT was not a very impressive or high-class dog ; it
was one of those commonplace dogs one sees
everywhere colour of white and dust, tail mutilated
at a young age by God knows whom, born in the
street, and bred on the leavings and garbage of the
market-place. He had spotty eyes and undistinguished
carriage and needless pugnacity. Before he was two
years old he had earned the scars of a hundred fights
on his body. When he needed rest on hot afternoons
he lay curled up under the culvert at the eastern gate
of the market. In the evenings he set out on his daily
rounds, loafed in the surrounding streets and lanes,
engaged himself in skirmishes, picked up edibles on the
roadside, and was back at the market gate by nightfall.
This life went on for three years. And then occurred
a change in his life. A beggar, blind of both eyes,
appeared at the market gate. An old woman led him
up there early in the morning, seated him at the gate,
and came up again at midday with some food, gathered
his coins, and took him home at night.
The dog was sleeping near by. He was stirred by
the smell of food. He got up, came out of his shelter,
and stood before the blind man, wagging his tail and
gazing expectantly at the bowl, as he was eating his
sparse meal. The blind man swept his arms about
and asked : " Who is there ? " At which the dog
went up and licked his hand. The blind man stroked
46 THE BLIND DOG
its coat gently tail to ear and said : " What a beauty
you are. Come with me " He threw a handful
of food which the dog ate gratefully. It was perhaps
an auspicious moment for starting a friendship. They
met every day there, and the dog cut off much of its
rambling to sit up beside the blind man and watch
him ^receive alms morning to evening. In course of
time observing him, the dog understood that the
passers-by must give a coin, and whoever went away
without dropping a coin was chased by the dog ; he
tugged the edge of their clothes by his teeth and pulled
them back to the old man at the gate and let go only
after something was dropped in his bowl. Among
those who frequented this place was a village urchin,
who had the mischief of a devil in him. He liked to
tease the blind man by calling him names and by
trying to pick up the coins in his bowl. The blind
man helplessly shouted and cried and whirled his
staff. On Thursdays this boy appeared at the gate,
carrying on his head a basket loaded with cucumber
or plantain. Every Thursday afternoon it was a
crisis in the blind man's life. A seller of bright
coloured but doubtful perfumes with his wares mounted
on a wheeled platform, a man who spread out cheap
story-books on a gunny sack, another man who carried
coloured ribbons on an elaborate frame these were
the people who usually gathered under the same arch,
On a Thursday when the young man appeared at the
Eastern gate one of them remarked, " Blind fellow !
Here comes your scourge "
"Oh, God, is this Thursday?" he wailed. He
swept his arms about and called : " Dog, dog, come
here, where are you ? " He made the peculiar noise
which brought the dog to his side. He stroked his
THE BLIND DOG 47
head and muttered : " Don't let that little rascal "
At this very moment the boy came up with a leer on
" Blind man ! Still pretending you have no eyes.
If you are really blind, you should not know this
either " He stopped, his hand moving towards
the bowl. The dog sprang on him and snapped his
jaws on wrist. The boy extricated his hand and ran
for his life. The dog bounded up behind him and
chased him out of the market.
" See the mongrel's affection for this old fellow/'
marvelled the perfume-vendor.
One evening at the usual time the old woman failed
to turn up, and the blind man waited at the gate,
worrying as the evening grew into night. As he sat
fretting there, a neighbour came up and said : " Sami,
don't wait for the old woman. She will not come
again. She died this afternoon "
The blind man lost the only home he had, and the
only person who cared for him in this world. The
ribbon-vendor suggested : " Here, take this white
tape " He held a length of the white cord which
he had been selling " I will give this to you
free of cost. Tie it to the dog and let him lead you
about if he is really so fond of you "
Life for the dog took a new turn now. He came to
take the place of the old woman. He lost his freedom
completely. His world came to be circumscribed by
the limits of the white cord which the ribbon-vendor
had spared. He had to forget wholesale all his old
life all his old haunts. He simply had to stay on
for ever at the end of that string. When he saw
other dogs, friends or foes, instinctively he sprang up,
tugging the string, and this invariably earned him a
48 THE BLIND DOG
kick from his master. " Rascal, want to tumble me
down have sense " In a few days the dog learnt
to discipline his instinct and impulse. He ceased to
take notice of other dogs, even if they came up and
growled at his side. He lost his own orbit of move-
ment and contact with his fellow-creatures.
To the extent of this loss his master gained. He
moved about as he had never moved in his life. All
day he was on his legs, led by the dog. With the
staff in one hand and the dog-lead in the other he
moved out of his home a corner in a choultry veranda
a few yards off the market : he had moved in there
after the old woman's death. He started out early
in the day. He found that he could treble his income
by moving about instead of staying in one place. He
moved down the choultry street, and wherever he
heard people's voices he stopped and held out his
hands for alms. Shops, schools, hospitals, hotels he
left nothing out. He gave a tug when he wanted the
dog to stop, and shouted like a bullock-driver when
he wanted him to move on. The dog protected his
feet from going into pits, or stumping against steps
or stones, and took him up inch by inch on safe ground
and steps. For this sight people gave coins and
helped him. Children gathered round him and gave
him things to eat. A dog is essentially an active creature
who punctuates his hectic rounds with well-defined
periods of rest. But now this dog (henceforth to be
known as Tiger) had lost all rest. He had rest only
when the old man sat down somewhere. At night the
old man slept with the cord turned around his finger.
" I can't take chances with you " he said. A
great desire to earn more money than ever before
seized his master, so that he felt any resting a waste
THE BLIND DOG 49
of opportunity, and the dog had to be continuously
on his feet. Sometimes his legs refused to move.
But if he slowed down even slightly his master goaded
him on fiercely with his staff. The dog whined and
groaned under this thrust. " Don't whine, you
rascal. Don't I give you your food ? You want to
loaf, do you ? " swore the blind man. The dog
lumbered up and down and round and round the
market-place on slow steps, tied down to the blind
tyrant. Long after the traffic at the market ceased,
you could hear the night stabbed by the far-off wail
of the tired dog. It lost its original appearance. As
months rolled on, bones stuck up at his haunches and
ribs were reliefed through his fading coat.
The ribbon-seller, the novel-vendor and the perfumer
observed it one evening, when business was slack, and
held a conference among themselves : "It rends my
heart to see that poor dog slaving. Can't we do
something ? " The ribbon-seller remarked : " That
rascal has started lending money for interest I heard
it from that fruit-seller He is earning more than
he needs. He has become a very devil for money "
At this point the perfumer's eyes caught the scissors
dangling from the ribbon-rack. " Give it here," he
said and moved on with the scissors in hand.
The blind man was passing in front of the Eastern
gate. The dog was straining the lead. There was a
piece of bone lying on the way and the dog was
straining to pick it up. The lead became taut and
hurt the blind man's hand, and he tugged the string
and kicked till the dog howled. It howled, but could
not pass the bone lightly ; it tried to make another
dash for it. The blind man was heaping curses on it.
The perfumer stepped up, applied the scissors and
50 THE BLIND DOG
snipped the cord. The dog bounced off and picked
up the bone. The blind man stopped dead where he
stood, with the other half of the string dangling in
his hand. " Tiger ! Tiger ! Where are you ? " he
cried. The perfumer moved away quietly, muttering :
" You heartless devil ! You will never get at him
again ! He has his freedom ! " The dog went off
at top speed. He nosed about the ditches happily,
hurled himself on other dogs, and ran round and
round the fountain in the market-square barking, his
eyes sparkling with joy. He returned to his favourite
haunts and hung about the butcher's shop, tea-stall,
and the bakery.
The ribbon-vendor and his two friends stood at the
market gate and enjoyed the sight immensely as the
blind man struggled to find his way about. He stood
rooted to the spot waving his stick ; he felt as if he
were hanging in mid-air. He was wailing. " Oh,
where is my dog? Where is my dog? Won't
someone give him back to me? I will murder it
when I get at it again ! " He groped about, tried to
cross the road, came near being run over by a dozen
vehicles at different points, tumbled and struggled
and gasped. " He'd deserve it if he was run over,
this heartless blackguard " they said, observing
him. However, the old man struggled through and
with the help of someone found his way back to his
corner in the choultry veranda and sank down on
his gunnysack bed, half faint with the strain of
He was not seen for ten days, fifteen days and
twenty days. Nor was the dog seen anywhere. They
commented among themselves. " The dog must be
loafing over the whole earth, free and happy. The
THE BLIND DOG 51
beggar is perhaps gone for ever " Hardly was
this sentence uttered when they heard the familiar
tap-tap of the blind man's staff. They saw him
again coming up the pavement led by the dog.
" Look ! Look ! " they cried. " He has again got
at it and tied it up " The ribbon-seller could not
contain himself. He ran up and said : " Where
have you been all these days ? "
" Know what happened ! " cried the blind man.
" This dog ran away. I should have died in a day
or two, confined to my corner, no food, not an anna
to earn imprisoned in my corner. I should have
perished if it continued for another day But this
thing returned "
" When ? When ? "
" Last night. At midnight as I slept in bed, he
came and licked my face. I felt like murdering him.
I gave him a blow which he will never forget again,"
said the blind man. " I forgave him, after all a dog !
He loafed as long as he could pick up some rubbish
to eat on the road, but real hunger has driven him
back to jne, but he will not leave me again. See !
I have got this " and he shook the lead : it was
a steel chain this time.
Once again there was the dead, despairing look in
the dog's eyes. " Go on, you fool," cried the blind
man, shouting like an ox-driver. He tugged the
chain, poked with the stick, and the dog moved away
on slow steps. They stood listening to the tap-tap
" Death alone can help that dog," cried the ribbon-
seller, looking after it with a sigh. " What can we do
with a creature who returns to his doom with such a
free heart ? "
THE Madras-Bangalore Express was due to start
in a few minutes. Trolleys and barrows piled
with trunks and beds rattled their way through the
bustle. Fruit-sellers and beedi-and-betel sellers cried
themselves hoarse. Latecomers pushed, shouted and
perspired. The engine added to the general noise
with the low monotonous hum of its boiler ; the first
bell rang, the guard looked at his watch. Mr. Rajam
Iyer arrived on the platform at a terrific pace, with
a small roll of bedding under one arm and an absurd
yellow trunk under the other. He ran to the first
third-class compartment that caught his eye, peered
in and, since the door could not be opened on account
of the congestion inside, flung himself in through the
Fifteen minutes later Madras flashed past the train
in window-framed patches of sun-scorched roofs and
fields. At the next halt, Mandhakam, most of the
passengers got down. The compartment built to
" seat 8 passengers ; 4 British Troops, or 6 Indian
Troops," now carried only nine. Rajam Iyer found
a seat and made himself comfortable opposite a sallow,
meek passenger, who suddenly removed his coat,
folded it and placed it under his head and lay down,
shrinking himself to the area he had occupied while
he was sitting. With his knees drawn up almost to
his chin, he rolled himself into a ball. Rajam Iyer
threw at him an indulgent, compassionate look. He
then fumbled for his glasses and pulled out of his
pocket a small book, which set forth in clear Tamil
the significance of the obscure Sandhi rites that every
Brahmin worth the name performs thrice daily.
He was startled out of this pleasant languor by a
series of growls coming from a passenger who had got
in at Katpadi. The newcomer, looking for a seat,
had been irritated by the spectacle of the meek
passenger asleep and had enforced the law of the
Third-class. He then encroached on most of the
meek passenger's legitimate space and began to deliver
home-truths which passed by easy stages from im-
pudence to impertinence and finally to ribaldry.
Rajam Iyer peered over his spectacles. There was
a dangerous look in his eyes. He tried to return to
the book, but could not. The bully's speech was
" What is all this ? " Rajam Iyer asked suddenly,
in a hard tone.
" What is what ? " growled back the newcomer,
turning sharply on Rajam Iyer.
" Moderate your style a bit," Rajam Iyer said
" You moderate yours first,' 1 replied the other.
" My man," Rajam Iyer began endearingly, " this
sort of thing will never do."
The newcomer received this in silence. Rajam
Iyer felt encouraged and drove home his moral :
"Just try and be more courteous, it is your duty."
" You mind your business," replied the newcomer.
Rajam Iyer shook his head disapprovingly and
drawled out a " No." The newcomer stood looking
out for some time and, as if expressing a brilliant
truth that had just dawned on him, said, " You arc
a Brahmin, I see. Learn, sir, that your days are over.
Don't think you can bully us as you have been bullying
us all these years."
Rajam Iyer gave a short laugh and said : " What
has it to do with your beastly conduct to this gentle-
man ? "
The newcomer assumed a tone of mock humility
and said : " Shall I take the dust from your feet, O
Holy Brahmin ? Oh, Brahmin, Brahmin." He con-
tinued in a sing-song fashion : " Your days are over,
my dear sir, learn that. I should like to see you
trying a bit of bossing on us."
" Whose master is who ? " asked Rajam Iyer
The newcomer went on with no obvious relevance :
" The cost of mutton has gone up out of all proportion.
It is nearly double what it used to be."
" Is it ? " asked Rajam Iyer.
" Yes, and why ? " continued the other. " Because
Brahmins have begun to eat meat and they pay high
prices to get it secretly." He then turned to the
other passengers and added : " And we non-Brahmins
have to pay the same price, though we don't care for
Rajam Iyer leaned back in his seat, reminding
himself of a proverb which said that if you threw a
stone into a gutter it would only spurt filth in your face.
" And," said the newcomer, " the price of meat
used to be five annas per pound. I remember the
days quite well. It is nearly twelve annas now.
Why? Because the Brahmin is prepared to pay so
much, if only he can have it in secret* I have with
my own eyes seen Brahmins, pukkah Brahmins with
sacred threads on their bodies, carrying fish under
their arms, of course all wrapped up in a towel. Ask
them what it is, and they will tell you that it is plantain.
Plantain that has life, I suppose ! I once tickled a
fellow under the arm and out came the biggest fish
in the market. Hey, Brahmin," he said, turning to
Rajam Iyer, " what did you have for your meal this
morning?" "Who? I ? " asked Rajam Iyer. "Why
do you want to know ? " " Look, sirs," said the
newcomer to the other passengers, " why is he afraid
to tell us what he ate this morning ? " And turning
to Rajam Iyer, " Mayn't a man ask another what he
had for his morning meal ? "
" Oh, by all means. I had rice, ghee, curds, brinjal
soup, fried beans."
" Oh, is that all ? " asked the newcomer, with an
" Yes," replied Rajam Iyer.
" Is that all ? "
" Yes, how many times do you want me to repeat
" No offence, no offence," replied the newcomer.
" Do you mean to say I am lying ? " asked
" Yes," replied the other, " you have omitted from
your list a few things. Didn't I see you this morning
going home from the market with a banana, a water
banana, wrapped up in a towel, under your arm?
Possibly it was somebody very much like you. Possibly
I mistook the person. My wife prepares excellent
soup with fish. You won't be able to find the difference
between dholl soup and fish soup. Send your wife,
5 6 FELLOW-FEELING
or the wife of the person that was exactly like you to
my wife to learn soup making. Hundreds of Brahmins
have smacked their lips over the dholl soup prepared
in my house. I am a leper if there is a lie in anything
" You are," replied Rajam Iyer, grinding his teeth.
" You are a rabid leper."
" Whom do you call a leper ! "
" You ! "
" I ? You call me a leper ? "
" No. I call you a rabid leper."
" You call me rabid ? " the newcomer asked, striking
his chest to emphasize " Me."
" You are a filthy brute," said Rajam Iyer. " You
must be handed over to the police."
" Bah ! " exclaimed the newcomer. " As if I didn't
know what these police were."
" Yes, you must have had countless occasions to
know the police. And you will see more of them yet
in your miserable life, if you don't get beaten to death
like the street mongrel you are," said Rajam Iyer in
great passion. " With your foul mouth you are bound
to come to that end."
" What do you say ? " shouted the newcomer
menacingly. " What do you say, you vile humbug ? "
" Shut up," Rajam Iyer cried.
" You shut up."
" Do you know to whom you are talking ? "
" What do I care who the son of a mongrel is ? "
" I will thrash you with my slippers," said Rajam
" I will pulp you down with an old rotten sandal,"
came the reply.
" I will kick you," said Rajam Iyer.
" Will you ? " howled the newcomer.
" Come on, let us see."
Both rose to their feet simultaneously.
There they stood facing each other on the floor of
the compartment. Rajam Iyer was seized by a sense
of inferiority. The newcomer stood nine clean inches
over him. He began to feel ridiculous, short and fat,
wearing a loose dhot and a green coat, while the
newcomer towered above him in his grease-spotted
khaki suit. Out of the corner of his eye he noted that
the other passengers were waiting eagerly to see how
the issue would be settled and were not in the least
disposed to intervene.
" Why do you stand as if your mouth was stopped
with mud ? " asked the newcomer.
" Shut up," Rajam Iyer snapped, trying not to be
impressed by the size of the adversary.
" Your honour said that you would kick me," said
the newcomer, pretending to offer himself.
" Won't I kick you ? " asked Rajam Iyer.
" No," said Rajam Iyer, " I will do something
" Do it," said the other, throwing forward his chest
and pushing up the sleeves of his coat.
Rajam Iyer removed his coat and rolled up his
sleeves. He rubbed his hands and commanded
suddenly " Stand still ! " The newcomer was taken
aback. He stood for a second baffled. Rajam Iyer
gave him no time to think. With great force he
swung his right arm and brought it near the other's
cheek, but stopped it short without hitting him.
" Wait a minute, I think I had better give you a
chance," said Rajam Iyer.
5 8 FELLOW-FEELING
" What chance ? " asked the newcomer.
" It would be unfair if I did it without giving you
" Did what ? "
" You stand there and it will be over in a fraction
of a second."
" Fraction of a second ? What will you do ? "
" Oh, nothing very complicated," replied Raj am
Iyer nonchalantly, " nothing very complicated. I
will slap your right cheek and at the same time tug
your left ear and your mouth, which is now under
your nose, will suddenly find itself under your left ear,
and, what is more, stay there. I assure you, you won't
feel any pain."
" What do you say ? "
" And it will all be over before you say ' Sri Rama V
" I don't believe it," said the newcomer.
" Well and good. Don't believe it," said Rajam
Iyer carelessly. " I never do it except under extreme
" Do you think I am an infant ? "
" I implore you, my man, not to believe me. Have
you heard of a thing called ju-jitsu ? Well, this is a
simple trick in ju-jitsu perhaps known to half a dozen
persons in the whole of South India."
" You said you would kick me," said the newcomer.
" Well, isn't this worse ? " asked Rajam Iyer. He
drew a line on the newcomer's face between his left
ear and mouth, muttering " I must admit you have a
tolerably good face and round figure. But imagine
yourself going about the streets with your mouth under
your left ear . . ." He chuckled at the vision. " I
expect at Jalarpet station there will be a huge crowd
outside our compartment to see you/ 9 The newcomer
stroked his chin thoughtfully. Rajam Iyer continued :
" I felt it my duty to explain the whole thing to you
beforehand. I am not as hot headed as you are. I
have some consideration for your wife and children.
It will take some time for the kids to recognize papa
when he returns home with his mouth under . . .
How many children have you ? "
" And then think of it," said Rajam Iyer : " You
will have to take your food under your left ear, and
you will need the assistance of your wife to drink
water. She will have to pour it in."
" I will go to a doctor," said the newcomer.
" Do go," replied Rajam Iyer, " and I will give you a
thousand rupees if you find a doctor. You may try
even European doctors."
The newcomer stood ruminating with knitted brow.
" Now prepare," shouted Rajam Iyer, " one blow on
the right cheek. I will jerk your left ear, and your
mouth . . ."
The newcomer suddenly ran to the window and
leaned far out of it. Rajam decided to leave the
compartment at Jalarpet.
But the moment the train stopped at Jalarpet station,
the newcomer grabbed his bag and jumped out. He
moved away at a furious pace and almost knocked
down a coconut-seller and a person carrying a tray-
load of coloured toys. Rajam Iyer felt it would not
be necessary for him to get out now. He leaned
through the window and cried, " Look here ! " The
" Shall I keep a seat for you ? " asked Rajam Iyer.
"No, my ticket is for Jalaipet," the newcomer
answered and quickened his pace.
The train had left Jalarpet at least a mile behind.
The meek passenger still sat shrunk in a corner of the
seat. Rajam Iyer looked over his spectacles and said :
" Lie down if you like. 53
The meek passenger proceeded to roll himself into
a ball. Rajam Iyer added, " Did you hear that bully
say that his ticket was for Jalarpet ? "
" Well," he lied, u he is in the fourth compartment
from here. I saw him get into it just as the train
Though the meek passenger was too grateful to
doubt this statement, one or two other passengers
looked at Rajam Iyer sceptically.
THERE was still a faint splash of red on the
western horizon. The watchman stood on the
tank bund and took a final survey. All the people
who had come for evening walks had returned to
their homes. Not a soul anywhere except that
obstinate angler, at the northern end, who sat with
his feet in water, sadly gazing on his rod. It was no
use bothering about him : he would sit there till
midnight, hoping for a catch.
The Taluk office gong struck nine. The watchman
was satisfied that no trespassing cattle had sneaked in
through the wire fencing. As he turned to go, he
saw, about a hundred yards away, a shadowy figure
moving down the narrow stone steps that led to the
water's edge. He thought for a second that it might
be a ghost. He dismissed the idea, and went up to
investigate. If it was anyone come to bathe at this
hour. . . . From the top step he observed that it
was a woman's form. She stooped over the last step
and placed something on it possibly a letter. She
then stepped into knee-deep water, and stood there,
her hands pressed together in prayer. Unmistakable
signs always to be followed by the police and gruesome
details, bringing the very worst possible reputation
to a tank.
He shouted, " Gome out, there, come out of ik"
The form looked up from the water. " Don't stand
62 THE WATCHMAN
there and gaze. You'll catch a cold, come up whoever
you are . . ." He raced down the steps and picked
up the letter. He hurriedly lit his lamp, and turned
its wick, till it burnt brightly, and held it up, mur-
muring : " I don't like this. Why is everyone coming
to the same tank ? If you want to be dead, throw
yourself under an engine," he said.
The light fell upon the other's face. It was a young
girl's, wet with tears. He felt a sudden pity. He said,
" Sit down, sit down and rest . . . no, no ... go up
two more steps and sit down. Don't sit so near the
water . . ." She obeyed. He sat down on the last
step between her and the water, placed the lantern on
the step, took out a piece of tobacco and put it in
his mouth. She buried her face in her hands, and
began to sob. He felt troubled and asked : " Why
don't you rise and go home, lady ? "
She sputtered through her sob : " I have no home
in this world ! "
" Don't tell me ! Surely, you didn't grow up with-
out a home all these years ! " said the watchman.
" I lost my mother when I was five years old "
" I thought so . . ." replied the watchman, and
added, " and your father married again and you grew
up under the care of your step-mother ? "
" Yes, yes, how do you know ? " she asked.
" I am sixty-five years old," he said and asked :
" Did your step-mother trouble you ? "
" No, there you are wrong," the girl said. " She
is very kind to me. She has been looking after me
ever since my father died a few years ago. She has
just a little money on hand left by my father, and she
spends it on us."
THE WATCHMAN 63
The watchman looked at the stars, sighed for the
dinner that he was missing. " It's very late, madam,
" I tell you I've no home " she retorted
" Your step-mother's house is all right from what
you say. She is good to you."
" But why should I be a burden to her ? Who
am I ? "
"You are her husband's daughter " the watch-
man said, and added, " that is enough claim."
" No no. I won't live on anybody's charity."
" Then you will have to wait till they find you
a husband "
She glared at him in the dark. " That's what I
do not want to do. I want to study and become a
doctor and earn my livelihood. I don't want to
marry. I often catch my mother talking far into the
night to her eldest son, worrying about my future,
about my marriage. I know they cannot afford to
keep me in college very long now ; it costs about
twenty rupees a month."
" Twenty rupees ! " The watchman exclaimed.
It was his month's salary. " How can anybody spend
so much for books ! "
" Till today," she said, " I was hoping that I would
get a scholarship. That would have saved me. But
this evening they announced ; others have got it, not
I. My name is not there " and she broke down
again. The watchman looked at her in surprise. He
comprehended very little of all this situation. She
added : " And when they come to know of this, they
will try to arrange my marriage. Someone is coming
to have a look at me tomorrow "
64 THE WATCHMAN
" Marry him and may God bless you with ten
" No, no," she cried hysterically. " I don't want
to marry. I want to study."
The silent night was stabbed by her sobbing and
some night bird rustled the water, and wavelets beat
upon the shore. Seeing her suffer, he found his own
sorrows in life came to his mind ; how in those far-off
times, in his little village home an epidemic of cholera
laid out his father and mother and brothers on the
same day, and he was the sole survivor ; how he was
turned out of his ancestral home through the trickery
of his father's kinsmen, and he wandered as an orphan,
suffering indescribable hunger and privation.
" Everyone has his own miseries," he said. " If
people tried to kill themselves for each one of them,
I don't know how often they would have to drown."
He remembered further incidents and his voice shook
with sorrow. " You are young and you don't know
what sorrow is ..." He remained silent and a sob
broke out of him as he said : " I prayed to all the
gods in the world for a son. My wife bore me eight
children. Only one daughter lives now, and none of
the others saw the eleventh year , , ." The girl
looked at him in bewilderment.
The Taluk office gong struck again. " It is late,
you had better get up and go home " he said.
She replied : " I have no home."
He felt irritated. " You are making too much of
nothing. You should not be obstinate "
" You don't know my trouble," she said.
He picked up his lantern and staff and got up. He
put her letter down where he found it.
" If you are going to be so obstinate I'll leave you
THE WATCHMAN 65
alone. No one can blame me." He paused for a
moment, looked at her, and went up the steps ; not
a word passed between them again.
The moment he came back to duty next morning,
he hurried down the stone steps. The letter lay where
he had dropped it on the previous night. He picked
it up and gazed on it, helplessly, wishing that it could
tell him about the fate of the girl after he had left her.
He tore it up and flung it on the water. As he watched
the bits float off on ripples, he blamed himself for
leaving her and going away on the previous night.
" I am responsible for at least one suicide in this tank,"
he often remarked to himself. He could never look
at the blue expanse of water again with an easy mind.
Even many months later he could not be certain that
the remains of a body would not come up all of a
sudden. " Who knows, it sometimes happens that
the body gets stuck deep down," he reflected.
Years later, one evening as he stood on the bund
and took a final survey before going home, he saw a
car draw up on the road below. A man, a woman,
and three children emerged from the car and climbed
the bund. When they approached, the watchman felt
a start at his heart ; the figure and face of the woman
seemed familiar to him. Though altered by years,
and ornaments, and dress, he thought that he had now
recognized the face he had once seen by the lantern
light. He felt excited at this discovery. He had
numerous questions to ask. He brought together his
palms and saluted her respectfully. He expected she
would stop and speak to him. But she merely threw
66 THE WATCHMAN
at him an indifferent glance and passed on. He stood
staring after her for a moment, baffled. " Probably
this is someone else/' he muttered and turned to go
home, resolving to dismiss the whole episode from
THE TIGER'S CLAW
THE man-eater's dark career was ended. The
men who had laid it low were the heroes of
the day. They were garlanded with chrysanthemum
flowers and seated on the arch of the highest bullock
cart and were paraded in the streets, immediately
followed by another bullock-drawn open cart, on
which their trophy lay with glazed eyes overflowing
the cart on every side, his tail trailing the dust. The
village suspended all the normal activity for the day :
men, women, and children thronged the highways,
pressing on with the procession, excitedly talking
about the tiger. The tiger had held a reign of terror
for nearly five years, in the villages that girt Mempi
We watched fascinated this scene, drifting along
with the crowd till the Talkative Man patted us
from behind and cried : " Lost in wonder ! If youVe
had your eyefull of that carcass, come aside and listen
to me . . ." After the crowd surged past us, he sat
us on a rock mount, under a margosa tree and began
his tale " I was once camping in Koppal, the most
obscure of all the villages that lie scattered about the
Mempi region. You might wonder what I was doing
in that desolate corner of the Earth. I'll tell you.
You remember I've often spoken to you about my
work as agent of a soil fertilizer company. It was the
68 THE TIGER'S CLAW
most miserable period of my life. Twenty-five days
in the month, I had to be on the road, visiting nooks
and corners of the country and popularizing the
stuff. . . . One such journey brought me on to the
village Koppal. It was not really a ' village ' but
just a clearing with about forty houses and two streets,
hemmed in by the jungle on all sides. The place was
dingy and depressing. Why our company should have
sought to reach a place like this for their stuff, I can't
understand. They would not have known of its
existence but for the fact that it was on the railway.
Yes, actually on the railway, some obscure branch-line
passed through this village, though most trains did not
stop there. Its centre of civilization was its railway
station presided over by a porter in blue, and an old
station-master, a wizened man wearing a green turban,
and with red and green flags always tucked under his
arms. Let me tell you about the * station.' It was
not a building, but an old railway carriage, which,
having served its term of life, was deprived of its
wheels and planted beside the railway lines. It had
one or two windows through which the station-master
issued tickets, and spoke to those occasional passengers
who turned up in this wilderness. A convolvulus
creeper was trained over its entrance : no better use
could be found for an ex-carriage.
" One November morning a mixed train put me down
at this station and puffed away into the forest. The
station-master, with the flags under his arm, became
excited on seeing me. He had seen so few travellers
arriving that it gave him no end of pleasure to see a
new face. He appointed himself my host immediately,
and took me into the ex-compartment and seated me
on a stool. He said : ' Excuse me. I'll get off these
THE TIGER'S CLAW 69
papers in a minute . . .' He scrawled over some
brown sheets, put them away and rose. He locked
up the station, and took me to his home a very tiny
stone building consisting of just one room, a kitchen,
and a backyard. The station-master lived here with
his wife and seven children. He fed me. I changed.
He sent the porter along with me to the village,
which was nearly a mile off in the interior. I gathered
about me the peasants of those forty houses and
lectured to them from the pyol of the headman's
house. They listened to me patiently, received the
samples and my elaborate directions for their use,
and went away to their respective occupations, with
cynical comments among themselves regarding my
ideas of manuring. I packed up and started back
for the station-master's house at dusk, my throat
smarting and my own words ringing in my ears.
Though a couple of trains were now passing, the only
stopping train would be at 5.30 on the following
morning. After dinner at the station-master's house,
I felt the time had come for me to leave : it would
be indelicate to stay on, when the entire family was
waiting to spread their beds in the hall. I said I
would sleep on the platform till my train arrived. . . .
'No, no, these are very bad parts. Not like your town.
Full of tigers. . . .' the station-master said. He let
me, as a special concession, sleep in the ' station.' A
heavy table, a chair and a stool occupied most of the
space in the compartment. I pushed them aside and
made a little space for myself in a corner. I'd at
least eight hours before me. I laid myself down :
all kinds of humming and rustling sounds came through
the still night, and telegraph poles and night insects
hummed, and bamboo bushes creaked. I got up,
70 THE TIGER'S CLAW
bolted the little station door and lay down, feeling
forlorn. It became very warm, and I couldn't sleep.
I got up again, opened the door slightly to let in a
little air, placed the chair across the door and went
back to my bed.
" I fell asleep and dreamt. I was standing on the
crest of a hill and watching the valley below, under
a pale moonlight. Far off a line of cat-like creatures
was moving across the slope, half shadows, and I
stood looking at them admiringly, for they marched
on with great elegance. I was so much lost in this
vision that I hadn't noticed that they had moved up,
and come by a winding path right behind me. I
turned and saw that they were not cat-like in size
but full-grown tigers. I made a dash to the only
available shelter the station room.
"At this point the dream ended as the chair barri-
cading the door came hurtling through and fell on me.
I opened my eyes and saw at the door a tiger pushing
himself in. It was a muddled moment for me : not
being sure whether the dream was continuing or
whether I was awake. I at first thought it was my
friend the station-master who was coming in, but my
dream had fully prepared my mind I saw the thing
dearly against the star-lit sky, tail wagging, growling,
and above all, his terrible eyes gleaming through the
dark. I understood that the Fertilizer Company
would have to manage without my lectures from the
following day. The tiger himself was rather startled
by the noise of the chair, and stood hesitating. He
saw me quite clearly in my corner, and he seemed to
be telling himself : ' My dinner is there ready, but
let me first know what this clattering noise is about. 9
Somehow wild animals are less afraid of human beings
THE TIGER'S CLAW 71
than they are of pieces of furniture like chairs and
tables. I have seen circus men managing a whole
menagerie with nothing more than a chair. God
gives us such recollections in order to save us at
critical moments ; and as the tiger stood observing
me and watching the chair, I put out my hands and
with desperate strength drew the table towards me,
and also the stool. I sat with my back to the corner ;
the table wedged in nicely with the corner. I sat
under it, and the stool walled up another side. While
I dragged the table down, a lot of things fell off it,
a table lamp, a long knife and pins. From my shelter
I peeped at the tiger, who was also watching me with
interest. Evidently he didn't like his meal to be so
completely shut out of sight. So he cautiously ad-
vanced a step or two, making a sort of rumbling noise
at his throat which seemed to shake up the little
station house. My end was nearing. I really pitied
the woman whose lot it was to have become my wife.
" I held up the chair like a shield, and flourished it,
and the tiger hesitated and fell back a step or two.
Now once again we spent some time watching for
each other's movements. I held my breath and
waited. The tiger stood there fiercely waving its tail,
which sometimes struck the side walls and sent forth
a thud. He suddenly crouched down without taking
his eyes off me, and scratched the floor with his daws.
c He is sharpening it for me,' I told myself. The little
shack had already acquired the smell of a zoo. It
made me sick. The tiger kept scratching the floor
with his fore-paws. It was the most hideous sound
you could think of.
"All of a sudden he sprang up and flung his entire
weight on this lot of furniture. I thought it'd be
72 THE TIGER'S CLAW
reduced to matchwood, but fortunately, our railways
have a lot of foresight and choose the heaviest timber
for their furniture. That saved me. The tiger could
do nothing more than perch himself on the roof of
the table and hang down his paws : he tried to strike
me down, but I parried with the chair and stool.
The table rocked under him. I felt smothered : I
could feel his breath on me. He sat completely
covering the top, and went on shooting his paws in
my direction. He would have scooped portions of me
out for his use, but fortunately I sat right in the
centre, a hair's-breadth out of his reach on any side. He
made vicious sounds and wriggled over my head.
He could have knocked the chair to one side and
dragged me out, if he had come down, but somehow
the sight of the chair seemed to worry him for a time.
He preferred to be out of its reach. This battle went
on for a while, I cannot say how long : time had come
to a dead stop in my world. He jumped down and
walked about the table, looking for a gap ; I rattled the
chair a couple of times, but very soon it lost all its
terror for him ; he patted the chair and found that it
was inoffensive. At this discovery he tried to hurl it
aside. But I was too quick for him. I swiftly drew
it towards me and wedged it tight into the arch of the
table, and the stool protected me on another side.
I was more or less in a stockade made of the legs of
furniture. He sat up on his haunch in front of
me, wondering how best to get at me. Now the
chair, table, and stool had formed a solid block with
me at their heart, and they could withstand all his
tricks. He scrutinized my arrangement with great
interest, espied a gap, and thrust his paw in. It
dangled in my eyes with the curved claws opening out
THE TIGER'S CLAW 73
towards me. I felt very angry at the sight of it.
Why should I allow the offensive to be developed all
in his own way? I felt very indignant. The long
knife from the station-master's table was lying nearby.
I picked it up and drove it in. He withdrew his paw,
maddened by pain. He jumped up and nearly brought
down the room, and then tried to crack to bits the
entire stockade. He did not succeed. He once again
thrust his paw in. I employed the long knife to good
purpose and cut off a digit with the claw on it. It
was a fight to a finish between him and me. He
returned again and again to the charge. And I cut
out, let me confess, three claws, before I had done
with him. I had become as blood-thirsty as he.
(Those claws, mounted on gold, are hanging around
the necks of my three daughters. You can come and
see them if you like sometime.)
"At about five in the morning the station-master
and the porter arrived, and innocently walked in.
The moment they stepped in the tiger left me and
turned on them. They both ran at top speed. The
station-master flew back to his house and shut the
door. The porter on fleet foot went up a tree, with
the tiger halfway up behind him. Thus they stopped,
staring at each other till the goods train lumbered in
after 5.30. It hissed and whistled and belched fire,
till the tiger took himself down and bolted across the
lines into the jungle.
"He did not visit these parts again, though one was
constantly hearing of his ravages. I did not meet
him again till a few moments ago when I saw him
riding in that bullock cart. I instantly recognized
him by his right forepaw, where three toes and claws
are missing. You seemed to be so much lost in
74 THE TIGER'S CLAW
admiration for those people who met the tiger at their
own convenience, with gun and company, thfrt I
thought you might give a little credit to a fellow who
has faced the same animal, alone, barehanded. Hence
When the Talkative Man left us we moved on to
the square where they were keeping the trophy in
view and hero-worshipping and feting the hunters,
who were awaiting a lorry from the town. We pushed
through the crowd, and begged to be shown the right
forepaw of the tiger. Somebody lowered a gas lamp.
Yes, three toes were missing, and a black deep scar
marked the spot. The man who cut it off must have
driven his knife with the power of a hammer. To a
question, the hunters replied : " Can't say how it
happens. We've met a few instances like this.
It's said that some forest tribes, if they catch a tiger
cub, cut off its claws for some talisman, and let it go.
They do not usually kill cubs."
THE PERFORMING CHILD
THE child was still in bed dreaming : she was
given a green railway engine just large enough
to accommodate her. She got into it and drove it all
over the garden. Near the jasmine plant she stopped
it for a while, and put her hand out of the window to
pluck flowers, and then the engine took her under the
red flowers of a creeper hanging over a wall at the
end of the street. And then she drove all by herself
to the zoo and all the monkeys there wanted to ride.
Of course there was no room for all of them. She
had just enough space for herself and the bald doll.
She applied some hair oil and the doll began to have
such long tresses that she braided them and put jasmine
into them ; and she clothed the doll in a green frock
and the doll said how nice it was. Of course there
were bags and bags of sweets scattered all over the
floor of the engine. . . . She was just stooping to
pick up a handful of chocolates when mother's voice
called : " Kutti ! Kutti ! get up." And Kutti came
out of the dream. " Get up, it is eight o'clock.'*
" Oh, mother, why did you disturb me now ? It
was such a beautiful engine. Just let me sleep again.
The doll wants to go home."
" They will be coming now, and you must be ready,
my dear. And if they like your dancing they will give
you so much money ; you can buy ten dolls and
76 THE PERFORMING CHILD
" Is it true, mother ? "
" Certainly, dear. Get up. They will give you a
lot of money."
" But I think you will take away all the money ; and
I won't be able to buy what I want."
" I promise, you shall have all the money, but only
on condition that you dance and sing as you did in
your school the other day."
Two people who were connected with the films had
seen Kutti dance and sing in her school and they
were now coming to see her. This was a sudden burst
of good fortune for the family ; Kutti's father was a
school master earning fifty rupees a month and with
it he had to pay for Kutti's education, pay off instal-
ments of a co-operative debt incurred for his sister's
marriage, and also run the household. For two years
this had been a major worry for the family, and it
had given Kutti's father a permanent look of harass-
ment. And now in a most unexpected manner relief
seemed to be coming : the debt could be ticked off ;
the pieces of jewellery pledged with a banker could
be released and Kutti's mother could once again hold
up her head before her friends. " How much are
you going to demand ? " she often asked her husband
and was told : " At least ten thousand rupees, not
an annas less."
At nine o'clock the film people arrived. One of
them was elderly and wore diamond rings on his
fingers, and the other was smart, and wore a tweed
suit and rimless glasses ; they took the two ricketty
chairs offered to them by Kutti's father. They looked
too imposing in this humble home ; the roof seemed
to be coining down and touching their heads they
gave such an impression of being high and stooping.
THE PERFORMING CHILD 77
They spent a few minutes in inanities and then the
smart man said, looking at his watch : " We've not
much time to spare. Will you call up the child ? "
Kutti came into the hall, dressed for the occasion
by her mother : her hair was plaited tight and had
flowers ; she wore a chequered silk skirt, and a green
jacket, and had a vermilion dot on her forehead.
Her father looked at her with pride.
The elderly man held out a packet of chocolates.
Kutti hesitated, looking at her father for permission.
The elderly man got up and thrust it in her hand and
asked, " Do you like cinemas, child ? "
" No," Kutti replied promptly, leaning on her
" Because they are so dark," replied Kutti. The
smart man was viewing her gestures and movements
critically. He said as if talking in a dream : " I'd
like to see her in a frock ; and her hair to be untied.
This old-fashioned dressing makes her look older
than she really is. Can't you put her into a frock
" Now ? " asked father in consternation, and told
his daughter : " Get into a frock, Kutti, and undo
" Let it fall down on your neck," said the smart man.
Kutti looked sullen.
" And where will the flowers be ? " she asked. " I
must keep the flowers."
" All right, let your hair alone,
" I like this skirt," said Kutti.
" Very well ; don't worry nov
it later," said the smart man.
78 THE PERFORMING CHILD
" Will you sing the piece you sang in your school
the other day, and dance ? "
"No," said Kutti. "I've forgotten it." The
elderly man fumbled in his pocket and brought out
another piece of chocolate. " And now baby, give us
that song and you can have this." Kutti looked at
" Go on, sing," he said, which meant to her by
implication " Yes, you may accept the chocolate."
Her mother's voice said from an inner room : " Go
on, Kutti, be a good girl." And Kutti opened her
mouth and her shrill voice sang an invitation to Lord
Krishna. Her eyes danced as if they beheld Krishna
before them ; her arms beckoned him, and her feet
were tremulous ; with every muscle in her body she
enriched the song. She was a born dancer, a born
actress. She could conjure up with her voice,
expression, and movement, a vision for others. For
a moment that humble room, with its ricketty chairs,
and fading prints of gods in frames, and dusty floor,
acquired the atmosphere of a fairy-land for the gods
to come and go : Krishna, an enchanting baby,
toddled up and revealed the universe in his mouth
when his mother looked in to see if he had put anything
in his mouth ; and then when grown up, the leader
of a gang of disreputable youngsters keeping the
neighbourhood in tantrums ; and then the divine
lover wringing the heart ofgopis . . . and he vanished
abruptly, the fairy hall vanished, and the fading
prints in frames, and the ricketty chairs came into
view again when Kutti's voice ceased. She took
breath and looked around at her audience. The
smart man sprang forward, took her in his arms,
kissed her, hugged her and would not put her down*
THE PERFORMING CHILD 79
He said to his companion : " This is a marvellous
child, just the kid for the picture. I shall refuse to
go on with your picture unless you take in this kid,
understand ? "
" Certainly, certainly."
" We are going now, and coming back at about
four in the afternoon, and if you don't mind I would
like to take the kid to the studio and test her before
a camera and mike."
As they were leaving, the elderly man said to Kutti's
father : " We like your child very much. I hope
she will be famous very soon. If you are free, I
would like to have a word with you in the evening."
The whole day the husband and wife could think
and talk of nothing but their child. Existence had
acquired a sudden smoothness and richness.
" I suppose this is how the rich people feel," said
" No mortgages, no debts, money for everything.
See here, my girl, I may even throw up this dirty
work and do something else. After this picture the
baby will be in demand everywhere. I will buy a
house for her in the extension."
" Don't fail to give her the engine she is asking for,
and the doll the bald doll. A girl has one in her
school and Kutti has been crying for it night and day.
It seems that it costs about six rupees."
" Let it cost sixty rupees. Why should we care ?
The child can have it."
Kutti was dressed and ready at three o'clock. Her
mother had taken care to leave her hair free ; and put
her into a frock. Kutti was furious. " I hate this
frock, mother ; why do you put me into this dirty
frock ? " She said tugging her hair : " I want to
8o THE PERFORMING CHILD
have this tied up. You understand ? I don't care,
I don't care." Her mother calmed her, and she went
out to play in the backyard. " Take care that you
don't make yourself dirty," said her mother.
At four o'clock when the film people arrived Kutti's
father went to the backyard to fetch her. She was
not to be seen. He asked his wife : " Where is Kutti ? "
" She was in the backyard. She may be in the
next house. I will see." She returned a few minutes
later. " She is not in that house, nor in the next one.
Where could she have gone ? "
The smart man waited for fifteen minutes and then
said : " We will be in the studio. As soon as you
find the child, will you bring her over ? "
" Yes," said Kutti's father.
Then began a search for Kutti. Her mother
wandered up and down the street ; her father went
to her school. An hour later they became desperate.
They had looked into every corner of the house, called
" Kutti, Kutti," a score of times and had gone and
enquired in every possible place. Mother became
hysterical, threw herself on the floor and began to
cry ; father stood in the doorway completely beaten
by the mystery. His wife's despair affected him. He
himself wondered if anybody had kidnapped the child.
Such things were common. People were known to
give drugged sweets to children and carry them away.
He told his wife, " I'll be back in a moment," and
went out to have a talk with his friends in the police
station. Long after he was gone, his wife after a
spasm of weeping got up. She looked again into every
corner of every room. At last she noticed a slight
stirring in a linen basket kept in an ante-room. She
opened the lid and looked in. Kutti was curled up
THE PERFORMING CHILD 81
at its dark bottom with her unbraided hair covering
her face. " Kutti ! Kutti ! " the mother screamed,
and rocked the basket. The child didn't stir. The
mother dived into it and brought out the child. She
carried her in her arms and ran out of the house, down
the street. " My child is dead, take me to a doctor,"
she wailed. Someone took pity on her, and put her
into a jutka and took her to the hospital. The doctor
felt her pulse and heart, and said, " She has only
swooned ; you've not been a minute too soon ; don't
get excited. She will be all right." He laid the child
on a table. In an hour Kutti sat up and locked her
arms around her mother's neck. Mother cried with
joy ; and took her in her arms. On the Way home
mother asked : " What made you get into the basket,
child ? "
Kutti paused for a while, and asked with puckered
brow : " Are those people gone ? "
" Who ? "
" The cinema men."
" Mother, if they ever come to our house again, I
will get into the basket once more and never come
out of it."
Mother hugged her close and said, " Don't fear. I
will see that they don't trouble you ever any more. "
WHEN the whole of the student world in Malgudi
was convulsed with excitement, on a certain
evening in June when the Intermediate Examina-
tion results were being expected, Iswaran went
about his business, looking very unconcerned and
He had earned the reputation of having aged in
the Intermediate Class. He entered the Intermediate
Class in Albert Mission College as a youngster, with
faint down on his upper lip. Now he was still there,
his figure had grown brawny and athletic, and his
chin had become tanned and leathery. Some people
even said that you could see grey hairs on his head.
The first time when he failed, his parents sympathized
with him, the second time also he managed to get
their sympathies, and subsequently they grew more
critical and unsparing, and after repeated failures they
lost all interest in his examination. He was often
told by his parents, " Why don't you discontinue your
studies, and try to do something useful ? " He
always pleaded, " Let me have this one last chance/'
He clung to university education with a ferocious
And now the whole town was agog with the
expectation of the results in the evening. Boys moved
about the street in groups ; and on the sands of
Sarayu they sat in clusters, nervously smiling and
biting their finger nails. Others hung about the gates
of the senate hall staring anxiously at the walls behind
which a meeting was going on.
As much as the boys, if not more, the parents were
agitated, except Iswaran's, who, when they heard
their neighbours discussing their son's possible future
results, remarked with a sigh : " No such worry for
Iswaran. His results are famous and known to
everyone in advance." Iswaran said facetiously, " I
have, perhaps, passed this time, father, who knows ?
I did study quite hard."
"You are the greatest optimist in India at the
moment ; but for this obstinate hope you would
never have appeared for the same examination every
" I failed only in Logic, very narrowly, last year,"
he defended himself. At which the whole family
laughed. " In any case, why don't you go and
wait along with the other boys, and look up your
results ? " his mother asked. " Not at all necessary,"
Iswaran replied. " If I pass they will bring home
the news. Do you think I saw my results last year ?
I spent my time in a cinema. I sat through two
He hummed as he went in for a wash before dressing
to go out. He combed his hair with deliberate care,
the more so because he knew everybody looked on
him as a sort of an outcast for failing so often. He
knew that behind him the whole family and the town
were laughing. He felt that they remarked among
themselves that washing, combing his hair, and putting
on a well-ironed coat, were luxuries too far above
his state. He was a failure and had no right to such
luxuries. He was treated as a sort of thick-skinned
idiot. But he did not care. He answered their
attitude by behaving like a desperado. He swung his
arms, strode up and down, bragged and shouted, and
went to a cinema. But all this was only a mask.
Under it was a creature hopelessly seared by failure,
desperately longing and praying for success. On the
day of the results he was, inwardly, in a trembling
suspense. " Mother," he said as he went out, " don't
expect me for dinner tonight. I will eat something
in a hotel and sit through both the shows at the
Emerging from Vinayak Street, he saw a group of
boys moving up the Market Road towards the College.
Someone asked : " Iswaran, coming up to see the
" Yes, yes, presently. But now I have to be going
on an urgent business."
" Where ? "
"Palace Talkies." At this all the boys laughed.
" You seem to know your result already. Do you ? "
" I do. Otherwise do you think I would be
celebrating it with a picture ? "
" What is your number ? "
" Seven Eight Five," he said, giving the first set of
numbers that came to his head. The group passed
on joking : " We know you are going to get a first-class
He sat in a far-off corner in the four-anna class.
He looked about : not a single student in the whole
theatre. All the students of the town were near the
Senate House, waiting for their results. Iswaran felt
very unhappy to be the only student in the whole
theatre. Somehow fate seemed to have isolated him
from his fellow-beings in every respect. He felt very
depressed and unhappy. He felt an utter distaste
Soon the lights went out and the show started a
Tamil film with all the known gods in it. He soon
lost himself in the politics and struggles of gods and
goddesses ; he sat rapt in the vision of a heavenly
world which some film director had chosen to present.
This felicity of forgetfulness lasted but half an hour.
Soon the heroine of the story sat on a low branch of
a tree in paradise and wouldn't move out of the place.
She sat there singing a song for over half an hour.
This portion tired Iswaran, and now there returned
all the old pains and gloom. " Oh, lady," Iswaran
appealed. " Don't add to my troubles, please move
on." As if she heard this appeal the lady moved off,
and brighter things followed. A battle, a deluge,
somebody dropping headlong from cloudland, and
somebody coming up from the bed of an ocean, a rain
of fire, a rain of flowers, people dying, people rising
from graves, and so on. All kinds of thrills occurred
on that white screen beyond the pall of tobacco smoke.
The continuous babble on and off the screen, music
and shouting, the cry of pedlars selling soda, the
unrestrained comments of the spectators all this din
and commotion helped Iswaran to forget the senate
house and student life for a few hours.
The show ended at ten o'clock in the night. A
crowd was waiting at the gate for the night show.
Iswaran walked across to "Ananda Bhavan" a
restaurant opposite to the Palace Talkies. The
proprietor, a genial Bombay man, was a friend of his
and cried : " Ishwar Sab, the results were announced
today. What about yours ? "
" I did not write any examination this year,"
" Why, why, I thought you did pay your examination
fees ! "
Iswaran laughed. " You are right. I have passed
my Intermediate just this evening."
" Ah, how very good. How clever you must be !
If you pray to Hanuman he will always bring you
success. What are you going to do next ? "
" I will go to a higher class, that is all," Iswaran
said. He ordered a few titbits and coffee and rose
to go. As he paid his bill and walked out, the hotel
proprietor said, " Don't leave me out when you are
giving a dinner to celebrate your success."
Iswaran again purchased a ticket and went back to
the picture. Once more all the strifes and struggles
and intrigues of gods were repeated before him. He
was once again lost in it. When he saw on the screen
some young men of his age singing as they sported in
the waters of some distant heaven, he said " Well
might you do it, boys. I suppose, you have no exam-
ination where you are . . ." And he was seized with
a longing to belong to that world.
Now the leading lady sat on the low branch of a
tree and started singing and Iswaran lost interest in
the picture. He looked about for the first time. He
noticed, in the semi-darkness, several groups of boys
in the hall happy groups. He knew that they must
all have seen their results, and come now to celebrate
their success. There were at least fifty. He knew
that they must be a happy and gay lot, with their
lips red with chewing betel leaves. He knew that all
of them would focus their attention on him the moment
lights went up. They would all rag him about his
results all the old tedious joking over again, and all
the tiresome pose of a desperado. He felt thoroughly
sick of the whole business. He would not stand any
more of it the mirthful faces of these men of success
and their leer. He was certain they would all look on
him with the feeling that he had no business to seek
the pleasure of a picture on that day.
He moved on to a more obscure corner of the hall.
He looked at the screen, nothing there to cheer him :
the leading lady was still there, and he knew she
would certainly stay there for the next twenty minutes
singing her masterpiece ... He was overcome with
dejection. He rose, silently edged towards the exit,
and was out of the theatre in a moment. He felt a
loathing for himself after seeing those successful boys.
" I am not fit to live. A fellow who cannot pass an
examination . . ." This idea developed in his mind
a glorious solution to all difficulties. Die and go to
a world where there were young men free from
examination who sported in lotus pools in paradise.
No bothers, no disgusting Senate House wall to gaze
on hopelessly, year after year. This solution suddenly
brought him a feeling of relief. He felt lighter.
He walked across to the hotel. The hotel man was
about to rise and go to bed. " Saitji," Iswaran said.
" Please forgive my troubling you now. Give me a
piece of paper and pencil. I have to note down
something urgently." " So late as this," said the
hotel man and gave him a slip of paper and a pencil
stub. Iswaran wrote down a message for his father,
folded the slip, and placed it carefully in the inner
pocket of his coat.
He returned the pencil and stepped out of the hotel.
He had only the stretch of the Race Course Road,
and turning to his right, half the Market Road to
traverse, and then Ellaman Street, and then Sarayu.
... Its dark swirling waters would close on him and
end all his miseries. " I must leave this letter in my
coat pocket and remember to leave my coat on the
river step," he told himself.
He was soon out of Ellaman Street. His feet
ploughed through the sands of the river bank. He
came to the river steps, removed his coat briskly,
and went down the steps. " Oh, God," he muttered
with folded hands, looking up at his stars. " If I
can't pass an examination even with a tenth attempt,
what is the use of my living and disgracing the world ? "
His feet were in water. He looked over his shoulder
at the cluster of university buildings. There was a
light burning in the porch of the Senate House. It was
nearing midnight. It was a quarter of an hour's walk.
Why not walk across and take a last Jook at the results
board ? In any case he was going to die, and why
should he shirk and tremble before the board.
He came out of the water and went up the steps,
leaving his coat behind, and he walked across the sand.
Somewhere a time gong struck twelve, stars sparkled
overhead, the river flowed on with a murmur ; and
miscellaneous night sounds emanated from the bushes
on the bank. A cold wind blew on his wet, sand-covered
feet. He entered the Senate porch with a defiant heart.
" I am in no fear of anything here," he muttered.
The Senate House was deserted, not a sound anywhere.
The whole building was in darkness, except the
staircase landing where a large bulb was burning.
And notice-boards hung on the wall.
His heart palpitated as he stood tiptoe to scan the
results. By the light of the bulb he scrutinized the
numbers. His throat went dry. He looked through
the numbers of people who had passed in Third-
Glass. His own number was 501. The successful
number before him was 498, and after that 703.
"So I have a few friends on either side," he said
with a forced mirth. He had a wild hope as he
approached the senate hall that somehow his number
would have found a place in the list of successful
candidates. He had speculated how he should feel
after that. . . . He would rush home, and demand
that they take back all their comments with apologies.
But now after gazing at the notice-board for quite a
while the grim reality of his failure dawned on him,
his number was nowhere. " The river . . ." he said.
He felt desolate like a condemned man who had a
sudden but false promise of reprieve. " The river,"
Iswaran muttered. " I am going," he told the notice-
board, and moved a few steps. " I haven't seen how
many have obtained honours." He looked at the
notice-board once again. He gazed at the top columns
of the results. First classes curiously enough a fellow
with number one secured a first-class, and six others.
" Good fellows, wonder how they manage it ! " he
said with admiration. His eyes travelled down to
second classes it was in two lines starting with 98.
There were about fifteen. He looked fixedly at each
number before going on to the next. He came to
350, after that 400, and after that 501 and then 600.
" Five Nought One in Second-Glass ! Can it be
true ? " he shrieked. He looked at the number again
and again. Yes, there it was. He had obtained a
second-class. " If this is true I shall sit in the B.A.
class next month," he shouted. His voice rang through
the silent building. " I will flay alive anyone who
calls me a fool hereafter . . ." he proclaimed. He
felt slightly giddy. He leant against the wall. Years
of strain and suspense were suddenly relaxed ; and
he could hardly bear the force of this release. Blood
raced along his veins and heaved and knocked under
his skull. He steadied himself with an effort. He
softly hummed a tune to himself. He felt he was the
sole occupant of the world and its overlord. He
thumped his chest and addressed the notice-board :
" Know who I am ? " He stroked an imaginary
moustache arrogantly, laughed to himself, and asked,
" Is the horse ready, groom ? " He threw a supercilious
side glance at the notice-board and strutted out like
a king. He stood on the last step of the porch and
looked for his steed. He waited for a minute and
commanded, " Fool, bring the horse nearer. Do you
hear ? " The horse was brought nearer. He made
a movement as if mounting and whipped his horse
into a fury. His voice rang through the dark river
side, urging the horse on. He swung his arms and ran
along the sands. He shouted at the top of his voice ;
" Keep off ; the king is coming ; whoever comes his
way will be trampled ..."
" I have five hundred and one horses," he spoke to
the night. The number stuck in his mind and kept
coming up again and again. He ran the whole length
of the river bank up and down. Somehow this did
not satisfy him. " Prime Minister," he said. " This
horse is no good. Bring me the other five hundred
and one horses, they are all in second-classes "
He gave a kick to the horsft which he had been riding
and drove it off. Very soon the Prime Minister
brought him another horse. He mounted it with
dignity, and said, " This is better." Now he galloped
about on his horse. It was a strange sight. In the
dim star light, alone at that hour, making a tap-tap
with his tongue to imitate galloping hoofs. With one
hand swinging and tugging the reins, and with the
other stroking his moustache defiantly he urged the
horse on and on until it attained the speed of a storm.
He felt like a conqueror as the air rushed about him.
Soon he crossed the whole stretch of sand. He came
to the water's edge, hesitated for a moment and
whispered to his horse : " Are you afraid of water ?
You must swim across, otherwise I will never pay five
nought one rupees for you." He felt the horse make
Next afternoon his body came up at a spot about a
quarter of a mile down the course of the river. Mean-
while some persons had already picked up the coat
left on the step, and discovered in the inner pocket
the slip of paper with the inscription :
" My dear father : By the time you see this letter
I shall be at the bottom of Sarayu. I don't want to
live. Don't worry about me. You have other sons
who are not such dunces as I am "
THE EVENING GIFT
HE had a most curious occupation in life. Having
failed in every effort he had to accept it with
gratitude and enthusiasm ; he received thirty rupees
a month for it. He lived on fifteen rupees in a cheap
hotel, where he was given a sort of bunk on the loft,
with rafters touching his head. He saved fifteen
rupees for paying off the family loan in the village
incurred over his sister's marriage. He added a rupee
or two to his income by filling money order forms and
post-cards for unlettered villagers, whom he met on
the post office veranda. But his main work was
very odd. His business consisted in keeping a wealthy
drunkard company. This wealthy man wanted some
one to check his drink after nine in the evening, and
take him home. Sankar's physique qualified him for
this task. " Don't hesitate to use force on me if
necessary," his employer had told him. But it was
never done. Sankar did all that he could by persuasion
and it was a quite familiar sight at the Oriental Cafe
Bar the wrangling going on between the employer
and his servant. But Sankar with a margin of five
minutes always succeeded in wresting the gentleman
from his cups and pushing him into his car. On the
following morning he was asked : " What time did we
reach home last night ? "
" Nine fifteen, sir "
" Did you have much trouble ? "
THE EVENING GIFT 93
" Nine fifteen ! very good, very good. I'm glad.
On no account should you let me stay on beyond nine,
even if I am in company "
" Yes, sir."
" You may go now, and be sure to be back in the
evening in time "
That finished his morning duty. He went back to
his garret, slept part of the day, loitered about post
offices, courts, etc., and returned to work at six o'clock.
" Come on," said his employer who waited for him
on the veranda, and Sankar got into the front seat of
the car and they drove off to the Oriental Cafe.
Today he was in a depressed state, he felt sick of
his profession, the perpetual cajoling and bullying,
the company of a drunkard. He nearly made up his
mind to throw up this work and go back to the village.
A nostalgia for his home and people seized him. " I
don't care what happens, I will get back home and
do something else to earn this money." On top
of this mood a letter from home : " Send a hundred
rupees immediately. Last date for mortgage instal-
ment. Otherwise we shall lose our house " He
was appalled ! Where could he find the money ?
What was the way out ? He cursed his lot more than
ever. He sat for a long time thinking of a way out.
" Our good old home ! Let it go if it is to go."
It was their last possession in this world. If it went,
his mother, brothers, and his little sister would have
to wander about without a roof over their heads.
But could he find a hundred rupees ? What did they
mean by putting it off till the last moment? He
cursed his lot for being the eldest son of a troubled
94 THE EVENING GIFT
He swung into duty as usual. He held the curtain
apart for his master as he entered the cubicle. He
pressed a bell. He might be a machine, doing this
thing for thirty days in the month for nearly twelve
months now. The waiter appeared. No talk was
necessary. Sankar nodded. The waiter went away
and returned a few minutes later with an unopened
flat bottle, a soda, and a glass tumbler ; placed these
on the table and withdrew.
" Bring this master a lemon squash," the gentleman
" No, sir " Sankar would reply ; this ritual was
repeated every day. Now Sankar's business would be
to pour out a measure of drink into the tumbler,
push it up, and place the soda near at hand, go out
on to the veranda, and read a newspaper there (with
the flat bottle in his pocket), and stay there till he
was called in again to fill the glass. By about ten to
nine the last ounce of drink would be poured out,
and Sankar would sit down opposite to his master
instead of going out to the veranda. This was a sort
of warning bell.
" Why do you sit here ? Go to the veranda."
" I like this place, sir, and I will sit here."
" It is not time for you to come in yet."
"Just ten minutes more, sir."
" Nonsense. It is just seven o'clock."
" About two hours ago "
" You people seem to turn up the clock just as you
like let me see how much is left in the bottle "
"Nothing," Sankar said, holding up the bottle.
" The last drop was poured out." He held up the
bottle and the other became furious at the sight of it.
" I think," he said with deep suspicion, " there is
THE EVENING GIFT 95
some underhand transaction going on I don't know
what you have been doing in the veranda with the
bottle " Sankar learnt not to answer these
charges. As the clock struck nine, he tapped the
other's shoulder and said, " Please finish your drink
and get up, sir " "What do you mean by it ?
I'm not getting up. Who are you to order me ? "
Sankar had to be firm.
" Look here, don't you be a fool and imagine I am
talking in drink. I am dead sober leave me alone "
" I dismiss you today, you are no longer in my
service. I don't want a disobedient fool for a com-
panion, get out " Usually Sankar sat through it
without replying, and when the drink was finished
he gently pulled the other up and led the way to the
car, and the other followed, scowling at him with red
eyes and abusing him wildly. Today when his
employer said, " I dismiss you, get out this minute "
Sankar replied, " How can you dismiss me all of a
sudden ! Must I starve ? "
" No. I will give you four months' salary if you
get out this moment." Sankar thought over it.
" Don't sit there. Make up your mind quickly "
said his master. One hundred and twenty rupees !
twenty rupees more than the debt. He could leave for
his village and give the cash personally to his mother,
and leave his future to God. He brushed aside this
vision, shook his head and said : " No, sir. You
have got to get up now, sir." " Get out of my
service " shouted his master. He rang the beU
and shouted for the waiter, " Get me another "
Sankar protested to the waiter. " Get out of here "
cried his master. " You think I'm speaking in drink.
96 THE EVENING GIFT
I don't want you. I can look after myself. If you
don't leave me, I will tell the waiter to neck you
out " Sankar stood baffled. " Now, young man
" He took out his wallet : " What is your
salary ? "
" Thirty rupees, sir."
" Here's your four-months'. Take it and be off. I
have some business meeting here, and I will go home
just when I like, there is the car." He held out a
hundred-rupee note and two tens. Mortgage instal-
ment. How can I take it? A conflict raged in
Sankar's mind, and he finally took the money and
said : " Thank you very much, sir."
" Don't mention it."
" You are very kind."
"Just ordinary duty, that is all. My principle is
* Do unto others as you would be done by others ' is
my principle is do. ... You need not come in the
morning. I've no need for you. I had you only
as a temporary arrangement I'll put in a word for
you if any friend wants a clerk or something of
the sort "
" Good-bye, sir."
" Good-bye." He was gone. The gentleman
looked after him with satisfaction, muttering : " My
principle is ... unto other. . . ."
Next morning Sankar went out shopping, purchased
bits of silk for his younger sister, a pair of spectacles
for his mother and a few painted tin toys for the
child at home. He went to the hotel, looked into
the accounts, and settled his month's bill. "I'm
leaving today," he said. " I am returning to my
village. . . ." His heart was all aflame with joy. He
paid a rupee to the servant as tip. He packed up his
THE EVENING GIFT 97
trunk and bed, took a last look round his garret ;
had an unaccountable feeling of sadness at leaving
the familiar smoke-stained cell. He was at the bus
stand at about eleven in the day. The bus was ready
to start. He took his seat. He would be at home
at six in the evening. What a surprise for his mother !
He would chat all night and tell them about the
drunkard. . . .
He was shaken out of this reverie. A police inspector
standing at the foot-board of the bus touched his
shoulder and asked :
" Are you Sankar ? "
" Get down and follow me."
" I am going to my village. . . ."
" You can't go now." The inspector placed the
trunk and bed on a coolie's head and they marched
to the police station. There Sankar was subjected to
much questioning, and his pockets were searched and
all his money was taken away by the inspector. The
inspector scrutinized the hundred-rupee note and
remarked : " Same number. How did you get this ?
Be truthful. . . ."
Presently the inspector got up and said : " Follow
me to the gentleman's house. . . ." Sankar found
his employer sitting in a chair in the veranda, with a
very tired look on his face. He motioned the inspector
to a chair and addressed Sankar in a voice full of
sorrow. " I never knew you were this sort, Sankar.
You robbed me when I was not aware of it. If you'd
asked me I'd have given you any amount you wanted.
Did you have to tie me up and throw me down ? " he
showed the bruises on his arm. " In addition to
robbing ? " Sankar stood aghast. He could hardly
A SNAKE IN THE GRASS
ON a sunny afternoon, when the inmates of the
bungalow were at their siesta a cyclist rang his
bell at the gate frantically and announced : "A big
cobra has got into your compound. It crossed my
wheel." He pointed to its track under the gate, and
resumed his journey.
The family consisting of the mother and her four
sons assembled at the gate in great agitation. The old
servant Dasa was sleeping in the shed. They shook
him out of his sleep and announced to him the arrival
of the cobra. " There is no cobra," he replied and
tried to dismiss the matter. They swore at him and
forced him to take an interest in the cobra. " The
thing is somewhere here. If it is not found before the
evening, we will dismiss you. Your neglect of the
garden and the lawns is responsible for all these
dreadful things coming in." Some neighbours dropped
in. They looked accusingly at Dasa : " You have
the laziest servant on earth," they said. " He ought
to keep the surroundings tidy." " I have been asking
for a grass-cutter for months," Dasa said. In one
voice they ordered him to manage with the available
things and learn not to make demands. He persisted.
They began to speculate how much it would cost to
buy a grass-cutter. A neighbour declared that you
could not think of buying any article made of iron
A SNAKE IN THE GRASS 101
till after the war. He chanted banalities of wartime
prices. The second son of the house asserted that he
could get anything he wanted at controlled prices.
The neighbour became eloquent on black-market. A
heated debate followed. The rest watched in apathy.
At this point the college-boy of the house butted in
with : " I read in an American paper that 30,000
people die of snake-bite every year." Mother threw
up her arms in horror and arraigned Dasa. The boy
elaborated the statistics. " I have worked it out, 83
a day. That means every twenty minutes someone is
dying of cobra-bite. As we have been talking here,
one person has lost his life somewhere." Mother
nearly screamed on hearing it. The compound looked
sinister. The boys brought in bamboo-sticks and
pressed one into the hands of the servant also. He
kept desultorily poking it into the foliage with a cynical
air. " The fellow is beating about the bush," someone
cried aptly. They tucked up their dhoties, seized every
available knife and crow-bar and began to hack the
garden. Creepers, bushes, and lawns, were laid low.
What could not be trimmed was cut to the root. The
inner walls of the house brightened with the un-
obstructed glare streaming in. When there was
nothing more to be done Dasa asked triumphantly,
" Where is the snake ? "
An old beggar cried for alms at the gate. They
told her not to pester when they were engaged in a
snake-hunt. On hearing it the old woman became
happy. " You are fortunate. It is God Subramanya
who has come to visit you. Don't kill the snake/'
Mother was in hearty agreement : " You are right.
I forgot all about the promised Abhishckam. This is a
reminder." She gave a coin to the beggar, who
102 A SNAKE IN THE GRASS
promised to send down a snake-charmer as she went.
Presently an old man appeared at the gate and
announced himself as a snake-charmer. They gathered
around him. He spoke to them of his life and activities
and his power over snakes. They asked admiringly :
" How do you catch them?" "Thus," he said, pouncing
upon a hypothetical snake on the ground. They
pointed the direction in which the cobra had gone
and asked him to go ahead. He looked helplessly
about and said : " If you show me the snake, I'll at
once catch it. Otherwise what can I do ? The
moment you see it again, send for me. I live
nearby." He gave his name and address and departed.
At five in the evening, they threw away their sticks
and implements and repaired to the veranda to rest.
They had turned up every stone in the garden and cut
down every grass-blade and shrub, so that the tiniest
insect coming into the garden should have no cover.
They were loudly discussing the various measures they
would take to protect themselves against reptiles in
the future, when Dasa appeared before them carrying
a water-pot whose mouth was sealed with a slab of
stone. He put the pot down and said : " I have
caught him in this. I saw him peeping out of it. . . .
I saw him before he could see me." He explained at
length the strategy he had employed to catch and
seal up the snake in the pot. They stood at a safe
distance and gazed on the pot. Dasa had the glow
of a champion on his face. " Don't call me an idler
hereafter," he said. Mother complimented him on
his sharpness and wished she had placed some milk
in the pot as a sort of religious duty. Dasa picked up
the pot cautiously and walked off saying that he would .
leave the pot with its contents with the snake-charmer
A SNAKE IN THE GRASS 103
living nearby. He became the hero of the day. They
watched him in great admiration and decided to
reward him adequately.
It was five minutes since Dasa was gone when the
youngest son cried : " See there ! " Out of a hole
in the compound wall a cobra emerged. It glided
along towards the gate, paused for a moment to look
at the gathering in the veranda with its hood half-
open. It crawled under the gate and disappeared
along a drain. When they recovered from the shock
they asked, " Does it mean that there are two snakes
here ? " The college-boy murmured : " I wish I had
taken the risk and knocked the water-pot from
Dasa's hand ; we might have known what it con-
I WAS returning from the hill temple where I had
been held up till nearly nine o'clock. I had
driven the car down the hill, turned to my left, and
gone a few yards further skirting the base of
the hill when the engine sighed and spluttered, the
whole car jerked and rocked and then came to a
dead stop. The hill loomed over me, jackals wailed
in the dark. I faithfully got down, went round the
car, opened the bonnet, and gazed in. What was
the use ? I knew nothing about a car's inside. My
car was usually well-behaved ; and occasionally when
it had some trouble I had it pushed to the nearest
workshop. Now I went round and round, opened
and closed the bonnet, and made futile efforts to
start the car. I soon realized that I should be a
fool to be going round, prodding here and there,
hoping that it could be started somehow. I sat down
on the running board, blinking, and hoping that some
motorist would come along and help me. The time
passed, and not a sign of a human being. The wind
rattled the side screen, and unseen insects hummed
and whirred about. I had a feeling that I was on
some strange planet with myself as the only human
being on it.
Presently I said to myself, " I will count ten and if
AN ACCIDENT 105
the car does not start by then I will abandon her and
I looked at the ground and counted, " One, two,
three ..." I believe after I reached eight or nine
I went back to one and counted up ; back and forth
untiringly like an auctioneer. After counting half a
dozen times thus I turned and saw a shadowy figure
at my side. I was startled.
" When did you come here ? Who are you ? "
" I came here a moment ago, sir."
" I didn't hear you coming. Who are you ? "
" My name is Anil Doss, and I am a driver, sir."
" Motor driver ? "
It seemed incredible that the Gods should have
taken so seriously my threat to abandon the car, and
sent a mechanic along.
" Where are you coming from ? "
" I am usually here, sir."
" You said you were a driver."
" The car was smashed and I have been without a
" But what do you do for a living ? "
" Oh ! There is no difficulty about that."
I thought he was mad or slightly drunk, and did
not seriously bother to cross-examine him. " Look
here, Ami Doss, my car has suddenly broken down.
I don't know what is wrong. Can you help me
He opened the bonnet and examined the engine.
He put his head into the car and unscrewed the
" Arc you able to see anything ? " I asked.
" Oh, quite well," he said.
io6 AN ACCIDENT
" It is so dark ! " I said, the only light we had
being the glare of cloud edges catching the city lights.
He came out and declared his diagnosis : " Loose
contact, jet trouble. . . ."
" I had it overhauled only a few months ago. It
can't be. The car came down so far all right ; all
this can't have happened just on this spot ? "
" Oh, yes. Worse things have happened here. It
is a bad place, sir."
" What do you mean by bad ? "
" Well, things happen here to a car which we can't
understand. It is a bad place, sir."
" Do you tell me that as soon as a car passes this
spot its wires snap, its jet is choked, and the battery
is run down ? "
" Yes, sir."
" It is amazing ! " I said.
" It is terrible, sir. For instance, at this very spot
my car was smashed, an Austin sedan, hardly a month
I remembered the accident. A few months ago an
Austin coming down the hill after nightfall dashed
against a boulder and was smashed to bits.
" Were you the driver of the car ? " I asked.
" Yes, sir."
" But wasn't he killed in the accident ? "
" No," he said. It seemed to me another instance
of the drunken condition of this man. He seemed to
be posing for someone else.
" Will you make my car move on the road again ? "
" Yes, sir. I will do my best."
" I will give you two rupees for the service."
He lifted the front seat, picked up the tools, and
got under the car for a moment ; came out and
AN ACCIDENT 107
buried his head into the bonnet. The only noise for
a while was the noise he made with the tools, and his
heavy breathing ; and of course the wind rattled the
side screen. ... A quarter of an hour later he
started the engine, drove the car a few yards forward,
and reversed. " You will have no more trouble, sir.
Only, as soon as possible, please change the piston
rings," he said. He opened the door and came out
of the car muttering. " I have been a driver for
twenty-five years, and it pains me when I see a car
suffer. For all the twenty-five years I have served
only two masters. With the first I stayed for only
four years, and with the other for over twenty years.
The Austin was the fourth car that my master bought
in the twenty years. I was with him since the day
he changed from a horse carriage to an Overland of
those days. I have loved motor-cars, whatever the
make, as no one else can ever love them. If I saw
anyone make the slightest scratch on a mudguard I
slapped his cheek though he might be an emperor's
son. And do you think I would have wilfully dashed
and smashed an Austin, which was only a month old ?
They say I was drunk. I swear I was not. I have
occasionally taken a drink, but I swear I was not
drunk that day. Will you kindly go to my master "
he gave me an address " and tell him that I wasn't
drunk and that the accident happened because of the
evil nature of the place."
" Such a bad accident ? " I asked.
" You know what this spot can do, but your luck
was better than that of the Austin."
I held up two rupees to him. He refused the
money. " It is no use to me, sir," he said. " I have
greater use for your good-will. If you will have the
io8 AN ACCIDENT
kindness to see my master and tell him that I wasn't
drunk, I shall be very grateful to you, sir."
I offered him a lift. He declined it. I pressed
the self-starter. The engine hummed. I switched
on the lights.
The car behaved so well that I was filled with great
admiration for the mechanic, and I decided to see his
so-called master next day.
I traced the owner of the wrecked Austin. I
conveyed to him the driver's message.
" Are you sure it was he ? " he asked.
" I don't know. He seemed to be slightly drunk
and might be an impostor. But after all, it might be
the same fellow. He gave me your address, and it
seems he had been with you for twenty years and
that you had an Overland once. ..."
" All that is true, no doubt, but I am puzzled.
Anil's skull was jammed when we picked him up, and
we carried his remains in a basket and buried him.
(What remained of the car could also have been put
in a basket.) . . . Don't contradict me ; the fellow was
drunk. I had caught him several times and warned
him. I knew all along that he would come to a
A SENSE of great relief filled Soma as he realized
that his five years of labour were coming to an
end. He had turned out scores of images in his life-
time, but he had never done any work to equal this.
He often said to himself that long after the Deluge
had swept the earth this Nataraja would still be
standing on His pedestal.
No other human being had seen the image yet.
Soma shut himself in and bolted all the doors and
windows and plied his chisel by the still flame of a
mud lamp, even when there was a bright sun outside.
It made him perspire unbearably, but he did not
mind it so long as it helped him to keep out prying
eyes. He worked with a fierce concentration and
never encouraged anyone to talk about it.
After all, his labours had come to an end. He sat
back, wiped the perspiration off his face, and surveyed
his handiwork with great satisfaction. As he looked
on he was overwhelmed by the majesty of this image.
He fell prostrate before it, praying, " I have taken
five years to make you. May you reside in our
temple and bless all human beings ! " The dim mud
flame cast subtle shadows on the image, and gave it
an undertone of rippling life. The sculptor stood lost
in this vision. A voice said, " My friend, never take
this image out of this room. It is too perfect. . . ."
no SUCH PERFECTION
Soma trembled with fear. He looked round. He
saw a figure crouching in a dark corner of the room
it was a man. Soma dashed forward and clutched
him by the throat : " Why did you come here ? "
The other writhed under the grip and replied : " Out
of admiration for you. I have always loved your
work. I have waited for five years. . . ."
" How did you come in ? "
" With another key while you were eating
inside. . . ."
Soma gnashed his teeth. " Shall I strangle you
before this God and offer you as sacrifice ? " " By
all means/ 5 replied the other, " if it will help you in
any way . . . but I doubt it. Even with a sacrifice
you cannot take it out. It is too perfect. Such
perfection is not for mortals." The sculptor wept :
" Oh, do not say that. I worked in secrecy only for
this perfection. It is for our people. It is a God
coming into their midst. Don't deny them that."
The other prostrated before the image and prayed
aloud, " God give us the strength to bear your
presence. . . ."
This man spoke to people and the great secret
was out. A kind of dread seized the people of
the village. On an auspicious day, Soma went to
the temple priest and asked, " At the coming
Full Moon my Nataraja must be consecrated. Have
you made a place for him in the temple ? " The
priest answered, " Let me see the image first. . . ."
He went over to the sculptor's house, gazed on the
image, and said, " This perfection, this God, is not
for mortal eyes. He will blind us. At the first chant
of prayer before him, he will dance . . . and we
shall be wiped out. . . ." The sculptor looked so
SUCH PERFECTION in
unhappy that the priest added, "Take your chisel
and break a little toe or some other part of the image,
and it will be safe. . . ." The sculptor replied that
he would sooner crack the skull of his visitor. . . .
The leading citizens of the village came over and
said, " Don't mistake us. We cannot give your image
a place in our temple. Don't be angry with us. We
have to think of the safety of all the people in the
village. . . . Even now if you are prepared to break
a small finger . . ."
" Get out, all of you," Soma shouted. " I don't
care to bring this Nataraja to your temple. I will
make a temple for him where he is. You will see
that it becomes the greatest temple on earth. . . ."
Next day he pulled down a portion of the wall of the
room and constructed a large doorway opening on
the street. He called Rama, the tom-tom beater,
and said, " I will give you a silver coin for your
trouble. Go and proclaim in all nearby villages that
this Nataraja will be consecrated at the Full Moon. If
a large crowd turns up, I will present you with a
lace shawl. . . ."
At the Full Moon, men, women and children
poured in from the surrounding villages. There was
hardly an inch of space vacant anywhere. The streets
were crammed with people. Vendors of sweets and
toys and flowers shouted their wares, moving about in
the crowd. Pipers and drummers, groups of persons
chanting hymns, children shouting in joy, men greeting
each other all this created a mighty din. Fragrance
of flowers and incense hung over the place. Presiding
over all this there was the brightest moon that ever
shone on earth.
The screen which had covered the image parted.
A great flame of camphor was waved in front of the
image, and bronze bells rang. A silence fell upon
the crowd. Every eye was fixed upon the image.
In the flame of the circling camphor Nataraja's eyes
lit up. His limbs moved, his anklets jingled. The
crowd was awe-stricken. The God pressed one foot
on Earth and raised the other in dance. He destroyed
the Universe under his heel, and smeared the ashes
over his body, and the same God rattled the drum
in his hand and by its rhythm set life in motion
again. . . . Creation, Dissolution, and God, attained
a meaning now ; this image brought it out . . . the
bells rang louder every second. The crowd stood
stunned by this vision vouchsafed to them. . . .
At this moment a wind blew from the east. The
Moon's disc gradually dimmed. The wind gathered
force, clouds blotted out the moon ; people looked up
and saw only pitch-like darkness above. Lightning
flashed, thunder roared, and fire poured down from
the sky. It was a thunderbolt striking a haystack
and setting it ablaze. Its glare illuminated the whole
village. People ran about in panic, searching for
shelter. The population of ten villages crammed in
that village. Another thunderbolt hit a house. Women
and children shrieked and wailed. The fires descended
with a tremendous hiss as a mighty rain came
down. It rained as it had never rained before. The
two lakes, over which the village road ran, filled,
swelled, and joined over the road. Water flowed
along the streets. The wind screamed and shook the
trees and the homes. " This is the end of the world ! "
wailed the people through the storm.
The whole of the next day it was still drizzling.
Soxna sat before the image, with his head bowed in
SUCH PERFECTION 113
thought. Trays and flowers and offerings lay scattered
under the image, damped by rain. Some of his
friends came wading in water, stood before him, and
asked, " Are you satisfied ? " They stood over him
like executioners and repeated the question and
added, " Do you want to know how many lives have
been lost, how many homes washed out, and how
many were crushed by storm ? "
" No, no, I don't want to know anything," Soma
replied. " Go away. Don't stand here and talk."
" God has shown us only a slight sign of his power.
Don't tempt Him again. Do something. Our lives
are in your hands. Save us, the image is too perfect."
After they were gone he sat for hours in the same
position, ruminating. Their words still troubled him.
" Our lives are in your hands." He knew what they
meant. Tears gathered in his eyes. " How can I
mutilate this image? Let the whole world burn, I
don't care. I can't touch this image." He lit a
lamp before the God and sat watching. Far off the
sky rumbled. " It is starting again. Poor human
beings, they will all perish this time." He looked at
the toe of the image. "Just one neat stroke with the
chisel, and all troubles will end." He watched the
toe, his hands trembled. " How can I ? " Outside
the wind began to howl. People were gathering in
front of his house and were appealing to him for help.
Soma prostrated before the God and went out.
He stood looking at the road over which the two
lakes had joined. Over the eastern horizon a dark
mass of cloud was rolling up. " When that cloud
comes over, it will wash out the world. Nataraja !
I cannot mutilate your figure, but I can offer myself
as a sacrifice if it will be any use. . . ." He shut
ii4 SUCH PERFECTION
his eyes and decided to jump into the lake. He
checked himself. " I must take a last look at the
God before I die." He battled his way through the
oncoming storm. The wind shrieked. Trees shook
and trembled. Men and cattle ran about in panic.
He was back just in time to see a tree crash on the
roof of his house. " My home," he cried, and ran in.
He picked up his Nataraja from amidst splintered tiles
and rafters. The image was unhurt except for a little
toe which was found a couple of yards off, severed
by a falling splinter.
" God himself has done this to save us ! " people
The image was installed with due ceremonies at
the temple on the next Full Moon. Wealth and
honours were showered on Soma. He lived to be
ninety-five, but he never touched his mallet and
THE Talkative Man said :
Years and years ago I had a shop. It was in
those days when Lawley Extension was not what it is
now. It consisted of less than a hundred houses.
Market Road being at least a mile off, the people
living in the Extension looked on me as a saviour
when I took up a little building, and on an auspicious
day hung up a large board with the inscription : The
National Provision Stores. I went from house to
house and secured orders. I literally examined every
pantry in the Extension and filled up the gaps. When
the bell rang for the midday interval at the Extension
Elementary School, children swarmed into my shop
and carried off whatever sweets, ribbons and fancy
stationery I happened to keep. I did about twenty-
five rupees credit and ten rupees cash sales every day.
This gave us at least fifty rupees a month to live on.
We paid a rent of five rupees and took a small house
in Kabir Street, which was over a mile from my shop.
I left at seven in the morning and returned home only
at nine in the evening, after clearing the daily accounts.
A year and a half passed thus. One day a young
fellow presented himself at my shop. He looked
about twenty, very fair and bright. He wore a
spotless dhoti and shirt.
ii6 A CAREER
" What can I do for you ? " I asked, taking him
to be a young customer.
In answer he brought his palms together in salute
and said, " I need your help, sir. I will do whatever
work you may give me in return for a little food and
shelter and kindness."
There was something in the young fellow's
personality which appealed to me. Moreover, he
had on his forehead three-finger width of sacred ash
and a dot of vermilion between his eyebrows. He
looked as if he had just come from a temple.
" I am very God-fearing, sir, and susceptible to
I spoke to him for about an hour.
He said he belonged to a family of wealthy land-
holders in a village near Trichinopoly. His mother
died some years before. His father took a mistress
who ill-treated the boy and consequently he ran away
A touching story I felt.
I directed him to my house. When I went home
in the evening I found that he had already made
himself a great favourite there. His life story had
deeply moved my wife.
" So young ! " she whispered to me, " and to think
that he should be left at this age without a father or
a mother ! " she sighed. He had made himself
lovable in a dozen ways already. He had taken my
little son out for a walk. The youngster cried as
aoon as he came home, " Let Ramu stay in our house.
He is great. He knows magic and can tame tigers
and elephants." Ramu walked into the kitchen and
offered assistance. At first my wife protested,
" Why won't you allow me to go near the oven,
A CAREER 117
Mother ? " he asked. " Is it because you think I
can't cook ? Give me a chance and see."
He. made a dash for the bathroom, turned the tap
on himself, and came out dripping. He took a handful
of sacred ash and smeared it on his forehead. My
wife was tremendously impressed. She let him do
He prepared delicious food for us. We were all
very pleased. After that he helped my wife with all
the cleaning and scrubbing. He slept at night on the
bare floor, refusing the mat and the pillow we offered.
He was the first to be up next morning. He lit
the stove and woke up my wife. At midday he brought
me my food. While I ate he attended to the school
children, who came into the shop. He handed them
their knick-knacks with an expert hand. He charmed
and amused them. He made them laugh. He
beguiled them with an alternative when he had not
on hand what they wanted.
It was inevitable that in a month he should be
sharing with me the shop work. He had attractive
ways about him. Customers liked to talk to him.
Within a short time there was not a single home in
the Extension where he was not treated as a member
of the family. He knew the inside story of every
family. He served every one to the best of his capacity.
Here he helped a man with his garden, and there he
pleaded with a house-building contractor and had an
estimate revised. He patched up quarrels. He tamed
truants and sent them to school. He took part in all
the extra-curricular activities of the Extension
Elementary School. He took an interest in the Club
Movement. He dressed himself up for the occasion
when the inspector visited the school, and arranged
u8 A CAREER
for the supply of garlands and flowers. And all this
in addition to assisting me in the shop. He went
every day to the market and purchased provisions
from the wholesale merchants, sat down for hours on
end in the shop and handed out things to customers,
pored over the accounts till late at night, and collected
all the bills.
As a result of Ramu's presence my business increased
nearly tenfold. I had abundant rest now, I left the
shop entirely in his hands. I went home for food at
midday. After that I slept till three in the afternoon.
And then I went to the shop, but stayed there only
till five o'clock, when I went to an open space near by
and played badminton with some friends. I came to
the shop again only at seven in the evening.
Once or twice I and my wife talked over the matter
and tried to fix up a monthly pay for Ramu. We
felt we ought not to be exploiting Ramu's friendliness.
But when the subject was mentioned Ramu grew red
in the face and said, " If you don't want me to stay
with you any more, you may talk of salary again. . . ."
Five years passed thus. He aged with us. He
lived with us through all our joys and sorrows. I
had four children now. My business had prospered
enormously. We were now living in a bigger house
in the same street. I took the shop building on a
long lease. I had an immense stock of all kinds of
provisions and goods.
I extended my business. I purchased large quan-
tities of butter in all the nearby villages and sold them
to butter and ghee merchants in Madras. This
business gave me large profits. It kept me running
between the villages and Madras. The shop was
entirely in Ramu's hands.
A CAREER 119
At Madras I used to stop with a merchant in George
Town. Once work kept me on there a little longer
than I had anticipated. One evening just as I was
starting out to post a letter for Ramu, a telegraph
messenger stepped off his cycle and gave me an
envelope. I tore open the cover and read : " Father
dying of cholera. Must go at once. Return im-
The next morning at five o'clock I got down at
Malgudi. Ramu was at the station. He was going
to Trichinopoly by the same train. The train halted
only for a few minutes. Red-eyed and sobbing Ramu
said, " My father, father, cholera. Never thought he
would get it. . . ." I consoled him. I had never
seen him so broken. I said feebly, " He will be all
right, don't worry. ..." I had hardly the heart
to ask him about the shop. He himself said, " I have
handed the keys to mother, and all the accounts and
cash also. . . ."
" All right, all right, I will look to all that. Don't
worry," I said.
The guard blew his whistle. Ramu jumped into a
third class compartment. The train jerked forward.
He put his head out of the window and said, " I will
be back tomorrow by the night train, if my father
gets better. . . . Whatever happens, I won't be away
for more than fifteen days. Kittu has asked me to
bring him ..." his voice and face receded " a
wooden elephant on wheels. Please tell him that I
will surely bring it. My namaskarams to mother. . . ."
Tears rolled down his cheeks. Even long after the
train had left the platform he was still looking out of
the window and gesticulating to indicate " I will
surely be back soon. . . ."
120 A CAREER
Having some unfinished Madras business on hand,
I could hardly go near the shop for a week. When I
reopened, the first thing that I noticed was that the
shop was empty. Except for a bag of coarse rice and
a few bars of cheap soap, all the racks and containers
were empty. I picked up the books and examined
them. The entries were all in a mess. I put them
away. Replenishing the stock was more urgent. I
made out a list and went to the market.
Sadik Sait, my wholesale supplier, squatted amidst
his cushions and welcomed me warmly. I owed my
start in life to the unlimited credit he allowed me.
After some preliminary, inconsequential talk, I put
before him the list. He scrutinized it gloomily and
shook his head. He said, " You want goods for about
three hundred rupees. I wouldn't advise you to put
up your dues. Why don't you take fifty-rupees worth
now? I am suggesting this only for your own
convenience . . ." This was the first time in my
life that he had spoken to me in this manner. And
he explained, " Don't mistake me, friend. You are a
business man, so am I. No use talking indirectly and
vaguely. I will tell you what the matter is. Your
account with us stands at Rs. 3,500 and if you had
paid at least a single instalment for these three months,
we should have felt happier. . . ."
"But, Sait, last month I sent four-hundred to be
given to you, and the month before three-hundred and
fifty, and the month before. . . . There must be
only a balance of. ..." He took out his ledger.
There was only one payment made for four months
when the bill stood at about a thousand. After that
there had been purchases almost every day for about
A CAREER 121
" The young fellow said that business was very
brisk and that you would clear the accounts when
you returned from Madras."
My head swam. " I will see you again, 35 I said,
and went back to the shop.
I once again examined the books. The pages
showed a lot of arrears to be collected. Next day I
went round to collect all my bills. People looked
surprised, " There must be some mistake. We paid
our bills completely a fortnight ago. Otherwise Ramu
wouldn't leave us in peace."
My wife said, " In your absence he was coming home
nearly at twelve every night. He used to tell me that
the accounts kept him late. ' How was business
today ? ' I unfailingly asked every day. He replied,
6 Business is good, bad, good and bad. Don't worry.
Leave it all to me. I will manage.' "
An old man of Lawley Extension asked me, " Where
is that boy you had ? "
I told him.
" Look here," the old man said. " Keep this to
yourself. You remember there lived next door to us
those people from Hyderabad ? "
" Yes, yes. . . ."
" Your boy was gadding about with them a little
too much. You know there was a tall, pretty girl
with them. Your fellow was taking her out every
evening in a taxi. He closed the shop promptly at
six in the evening. Those people went back to
Hyderabad a few days ago."
Later on I made enquiries in Market Road and
learnt that Ramu had had stitched four tweed suits,
eighteen silk shirts and other clothes worth about a
hundred rupees, purchased leather suitcases, four pairs
122 A CAREER
of pump shoes, two pairs of velvet slippers, a wrist
watch, two rings, a brooch, silk sarees, blouse pieces,
and so on. I got in touch with a near relative of
Ramu's employed in a bank in Madras. I learnt
that his old father was hale and hearty, and there
was no mention of cholera. Above all, Ramu was
never known to have visited Trichinopoly. His
whereabouts were unknown. The letter concluded :
" Someone recently returned from a tour mentioned
that he thought he caught a glimpse of Ramu in a
large gathering during some music festival in Hydera-
bad. He was, however, not very certain about it. . . ."
I sold my shop and everything, paid off my creditors,
and left Malgudi. I was a bankrupt, with a wife and
four children to support. We moved from place* to
place, living on the charity of friends, relatives, and
unknown people. Sometimes nobody would feed us
and we threw ourselves down in a dark corner of
some rest-house, and my ragged children cried till
sleep overcame them. I needn't weary you with an
account of my struggles. It is another story. I must
tell you about Ramu. I have to add only this about
my own career. Four years later I came across a
coffee-estate owner in Mempi Hills, and he gave me
a fresh start ; and I must say, thanks to him, I have
done very well indeed in the coffee trade.
Now about Ramu. A year ago I was panting up
the steps of Thirupathi Hills. I had a vow to fulfil
at the temple. I had passed two thousand steps when
a familiar voice assailed my ears from among the
group of mendicants lining the steps. I stopped and
turned. And there he was, I could hardly recognize
him now. I had seen him off at Malgudi station ten
years before. His face was now dark, scarred and
A CAREER 133
pitted. His eyes were fixed in a gaze. I should have
passed him without noticing if he hadn't called out
for alms. His voice was still unchanged. I stopped
and said, " Look here."
" I can't see, I am blind."
" Who are you ? Where do you come from ? " I
asked in a voice which I tried to disguise with a
" Go, go your way. Why do you want to know all
that ? " he said.
I had often boasted that if I met him I would
break his bones first ; but this was not at all how I
had hoped to see him again. I felt very confused
and unhappy. I dropped a coin on his upraised palm
and passed on. But after moving up a few steps I
stopped and beckoned to another beggar sitting by
his side. He came up. I held up an anna coin
before him and said, " You may have this if you will
tell me something about that blind man. . . ."
" I know him," said this beggar, who had no arms.
" We keep together. He has arms, but no eyes ; I
have eyes, but no arms, and so we find each other
helpful. We move about together. He is not a
beggar like me, but a sanyasi. He came here two
years ago. He had once much money in Hyderabad,
Delhi, Benares or somewhere. Smallpox took away
his sight. His wife, a bad sort, deserted him. He is
vexed with the world. Some pilgrims coming from
the North brought him here. . . . But, surely you
won't tell him I have spoken all this ? He becomes
wild if those days are mentioned. . . ."
I went back to Ramu, stood before him and watched
him for a moment. I felt like shouting. " Ramu,
God has punished you enough. Now come with me.
124 A CAREER
Where is your sweetheart? Where is my money?
What devil seized you ? " But I checked myself. I
felt that the greatest kindness I could do him was to
leave him alone. I silently placed a rupee on his
outstretched palm, and raced up the steps. At the
bend I turned my head and had another look at him.
And that was the last I saw of him. For when I
returned that way four days later, he was not to be
seen. Perhaps he had moved on to another place
with his armless companion.
LYING in bed, Swami realized with a shudder that
it was Monday morning. It looked as though
only a moment ago it had been the last period on
Friday ; already Monday was there. He hoped that
an earthquake would reduce the school building to
dust, but that good building Albert Mission School
had withstood similar prayers for over a hundred
years now. At nine o'clock Swaminathan wailed :
" I have a headache." His mother said : " Why
don't you go to school in ajutka ? "
" So that I may be completely dead at the other
end ? Have you any idea what it means to be jolted
in sijutka ? "
" Have you many important lessons today ? "
" Important ! Bah ! That geography teacher has
been teaching the same lesson for over a year now.
And we have arithmetic, which means for a whole
period we are going to be beaten by the teacher. . . .
Important lesson ! "
And mother generously suggested that Swami might
stay at home.
At nine-thirty, when he ought to have been shouting
in the school prayer hall, Swami was lying on the
bench in mother's room. Father asked him : " Have
you no school today ? "
" Headache," Swami replied.
" Nonsense ! Dress up and go."
126 FATHER'S HELP
" Loaf about less on Sundays and you will be without
a headache on Monday."
Swami knew how stubborn his father could be, and
changed his tactics. " I can't go so late to the class."
" I agree, but you'll have to ; it is your own fault.
You should have asked me before deciding to stay
" What will the teacher think if I go so late ? "
" Tell him you had a headache and so are late."
" He will beat me if I say so."
" Will he ? Let us see. What is his name ? "
" Does he beat the boys ? "
" He is very violent, especially with boys who go
late. Some days ago a boy was made to stay on his
knees for a whole period in a corner of the class because
he came late, and that after getting six cuts from the
cane and having his ears twisted. I wouldn't like to
go late to Samuel's class."
" If he is so violent, why not tell your headmaster
" They say that even the headmaster is afraid of
him. He is such a violent man."
And then Swami gave a lurid account of Samuel's
'violence ; how when he started caning he would not
stop till he saw blood on the boy's hand, which he
made the boy press to his forehead like a vermilion
marking. Swami hoped that with this his father
would be made to see that he couldn't go to his class
late. But father's behaviour took an unexpected turn.
He became excited. " What do these swine mean by
beating our children ? They must be driven out of
service. I will see. . . ."
FATHER'S HELP 127
The result was he proposed to send Swami late to
his class as a kind of challenge. He was also going
to send a letter with Swami to the headmaster. No
amount of protest from Swami was of any avail :
Swami had to go to school.
By the time he was ready father had composed a
long letter to the headmaster, put it in an envelope,
and sealed it.
" What have you written, father ? " Swaminathan
" Nothing for you. Give it to your headmaster and
go to your class."
" Have you written anything about our teacher
" Plenty of things about him. When your head-
master reads it he will probably dismiss Samuel from
the school and hand him over to the police."
" What has he done, father ? "
" Well, there is a full account of everything he has
done in the letter. Give it to your headmaster and
go to your class. You must bring an acknowledgment
from him in the evening."
Swami went to school, feeling that he was the worst
perjurer on earth. His conscience bothered him : he
wasn't at all sure if he had been accurate in his
description of Samuel. He could not decide how
much of what he had said was imagined and how
much of it real. He stopped for a moment on the
roadside to make up his mind about Samuel : he was
not such a bad man after all. Personally he was much
more genial than the rest ; often he cracked a joke or
two centring around Swami's inactions, and Swami
took it as a mark of Samuel's personal regard for him.
But there was no doubt that he treated people badly.
128 FATHER'S HELP
. . . His cane skinned people's hands. Swami cast
his mind about for an instance of this. There was
none within his knowledge. Years and years ago he
was reputed to have skinned the knuckles of a boy in
First Standard and made him smear the blood on his
face. No one had seen it actually. But year after
year the story persisted among the boys. . . . Swami's
head was dizzy with confusion in regard to Samuel's
character whether he was good or bad, whether he
deserved the allegations in the letter or not. . . .
Swami felt an impulse to run home and beg his father
to take back the letter. But father was an obstinate
As he approached the yellow building he realized
that he was perjuring himself and was ruining his
teacher. Probably the headmaster would dismiss
Samuel and then the police would chain him and put
him in jail. For all this disgrace, humiliation, and
suffering who would be responsible? Swami
shuddered. The more he thought of Samuel, the
more he grieved for him the dark face, his small
red-streaked eyes, his thin line of moustache, his
unshaven cheek and chin, his yellow coat ; everything
filled Swami with sorrow. As he felt the bulge of
the letter in his pocket, he felt like an executioner.
For a moment he was angry with his father, and
wondered why he should not fling into the gutter
the letter of a man so unreasonable and stubborn.
As he entered the school gate an idea occurred to
him, a sort of solution. He wouldn't deliver the
letter to the headmaster immediately, but at the end
of the day to that extent he would disobey his father
and exercise his independence. There was nothing
wrong in it, and father would not know it anyway.
FATHER'S HELP 129
If the letter were given at the end of the day there
was a chance that Samuel might do something to
justify the letter.
Swami stood at the entrance to his class. Samuel
was teaching arithmetic. He looked at Swami for a
moment. Swami stood hoping that Samuel would
fall on him and tear his skin off. But Samuel merely
asked : " Are you just coming to the class ? "
" Yes, sir."
" You are half an hour late."
" I know it." Swami hoped that he would be
attacked now. He almost prayed : " God of
Thirupathi, please make Samuel beat me."
"Why are you late?"
Swami wanted to reply : " Just to see what you
can do." But he merely said : " I have a headache,
" Then why did you come to the school at all ? "
A most unexpected question from Samuel. " My
father said that I shouldn't miss the class, sir," said
This seemed to impress Samuel. " Your father is
quite right ; a very sensible man. We want more
parents like him."
" Oh, you poor worm ! " Swami thought. " You
don't know what my father has done for you." He
was more puzzled than ever about Samuel's character.
"All right, go to your seat. Have you still a
headache ? "
11 Slightly, sir."
Swami went to his seat with a bleeding heart. He
had never met a man so good as Samuel. The
teacher was inspecting the home lessons, which usually
produced (at least, according to Swami's impression)
130 FATHER'S HELP
scenes of great violence. Notebooks would be flung
at faces, boys would be abused, caned, and made to
stand up on benches. But today Samuel appeared
to have developed more tolerance and gentleness. He
pushed away the bad books, just touched people with
the cane, never made anyone stand up for more than
a few minutes. Swami's turn came. He almost
thanked God for the chance.
" Swaminathan, where is your homework ? "
" I have not done any homework, sir," he said
There was a pause.
Why headache ? " asked Samuel.
" Yes, sir."
" All right, sit down." Swami sat down, wondering
what had come over Samuel. The period came to
an end, and Swami felt desolate. The last period
for the day was again taken by Samuel. He came
this time to teach them Indian history. The period
began at 3.45 and ended at 4.30. Swaminathan had
sat through the previous periods thinking acutely. He
could not devise any means of provoking Samuel.
When the clock struck four Swami felt desperate.
Half an hour more. Samuel was reading the red
text, the portion describing Vasco da Gama's arrival
in India. The boys listened in half languor. Swami
suddenly asked at the top of his voice : " Why did
not Columbus come to India, sir ? "
" He lost his way."
" I can't believe it ; it is unbelievable, sir."
" Such a great 'man. Would he have not known
the way ? "
" Don't shout. I can hear you quite well."
FATHER'S HELP 131
" I am not shouting, sir ; this is my ordinary voice,
which God has given me. How can I help it ? "
" Shut up and sit down."
Swaminathan sat down, feeling slightly happy at
his success. The teacher threw a puzzled, suspicious
glance at him and resumed his lessons.
His next chance occurred when Sankar of the first
bench got up and asked : " Sir, was Vasco da Gama
the very first person to come to India ? "
Before the teacher could answer, Swami shouted
from the back bench : " That's what they say."
The teacher and all the boys looked at Swami.
The teacher was puzzled by Swami's obtrusive
behaviour today. " Swaminathan, you are shouting
" I am not shouting, sir. How can I help my
voice, given by God ? " The school clock struck a
quarter-hour. A quarter more. Swami felt he must
do something drastic in fifteen minutes. Samuel had
no doubt scowled at him and snubbed him, but it
was hardly adequate. Swami felt that with a little
more effort Samuel could be made to deserve dismissal
The teacher came to the end of a section in the
textbook and stopped. He proposed to spend the
remaining few minutes putting questions to the boys.
He ordered the whole class to put away books, and
asked someone in the second row : " What is the
date of Vasco da Gama's arrival in India ? "
Swaminathan shot up and screeched : " Sixtcen-
forty-eight, December twentieth."
" You needn't shout," said the teacher. He asked :
" Has your headache made you mad ? "
" I have no headache now, sir," replied the thunderer
i3 FATHER'S HELP
brightly. " Sit down, you idiot." Swami thrilled at
being called an idiot. " If you get up again I will
cane you/' said the teacher. Swami sat down, feeling
happy at the promise. The teacher then asked : " I
am going to put a few questions on the Mughal period.
Among the Mughal emperors, whom would you call
the greatest, whom the strongest, and whom the most
religious emperor ? "
Swami got up. As soon as he was seen, the teacher
said emphatically : " Sit down."
" I want to answer, sir."
" Sit down."
" No, sir ; I want to answer."
" What did I say I'd do if you got up again ? "
" You said you would cane me and peel the skin off
my knuckles and make me press it on my forehead."
" All right ; come here."
Swaminathan left his seat joyfully and hopped on
the platform. The teacher took out his cane from
the drawer and shouted angrily : " Open your hand,
you little devil." He whacked three wholesome cuts
on each palm. Swami received them without
blenching. After half a dozen the teacher asked :
" Will these do, or do you want some more ? "
Swami merely held out his hand again, and received
two more ; and the bell rang. Swami jumped down
from the platform with a light heart, though his
hands were smarting. He picked up his books, took
out the letter lying in his pocket, and ran to the head-
master's room. He found the room locked. He asked
the peon :
" Where is the headmaster ? "
" Why do you want him ? "
" My father has sent a letter for him."
FATHER'S HELP 133
" He has taken the afternoon off, and won't come
for a week. You can give the letter to the assistant
headmaster. He will be here now."
" Who is he ? "
" Your teacher, Samuel. He will be here in a
Swaminathan fled from the place. As soon as
Swami went home with the letter, father remarked :
" I knew you wouldn't deliver it, you coward."
" I swear our headmaster is on leave," Swaminathan
Father replied : " Don't lie in addition to being
a coward. . . ."
Swami held up the envelope and said : " I will
give this to the headmaster as soon as he is back. . . ."
Father snatched it from his hand, tore it up, and thrust
it into the wastepaper basket under his table. He
muttered : " Don't come to me for help even if Samuel
throttles you. You deserve your Samuel. . . ."
WE were coming out of the music hall quite pleased
with the concert. We thought it a very fine
performance. We thought so till we noticed the
Talkative Man in our midst. He looked as though
he had been in a torture chamber. We looked at
him sourly and remarked : " We suppose you are
one of those great men who believe that South Indian
music died one hundred years ago. Or were you at
any time hobnobbing with all our ancient musicians
and composers, the only reason many persons like
you have for thinking that all modern singing is
childish and inane ? Or are you one of those restless
theorists who can never hear a song without splitting
it into atoms ? "
" None of these," answered the Talkative Man.
" I am just a simple creature who knows what he is
talking about. I know something of music, perhaps
just a little more than anyone else here, and that is
why I am horrified to see the level to which taste
has sunk. . . ."
We tried to snub him by receiving his remarks in
cold silence and talking among ourselves. But he
followed us all the way chatting, and we had to
listen to him.
Seeing me now (said the Talkative Man) perhaps
you think I am capable of doing nothing more artistic
than selling chemical fertilizers to peasants. But I
THE SNAKE SONG 135
tell you I was at one time ambitious of becoming a
musician. I came near being one. It was years and
years ago. I was living at the time in Kumbum, a
small village eighty miles from Malgudi. A master
musician lived there. When he played on the flute,
it was said, the cattle of the village followed him
about. He was perhaps the greatest artist of the
century, but quite content to live in obscurity, hardly
known to anyone outside the village, giving concerts
only in the village temple, and absolutely satisfied
with the small income he derived from his ancestral
lands. I washed his clothes, swept his house, ran
errands for him, wrote his accounts, and when he felt
like it he taught me music. His personality and
presence had a value all their own, so that even if
he taught only for an hour it was worth a year's
tuition under anyone else. The very atmosphere
around him educated one.
After three years of chipping and planing my master
felt that my music was after all taking some shape.
He said, " In another year, perhaps, you may go to
the town and play before a public, that is, if you care
for such things." You may be sure I cared. Not for
me the greatness of obscurity. I wanted wealth and
renown. I dreamt of going to Madras and attending
the music festival next year, and then all the districts
would ring with my name. I looked on my bamboo
flute as a sort of magic wand which was going to
open out a new world to me.
I lived in a small cottage at the end of the street,
It was my habit to sit up and practise far into the
night. One night as I *was just losing myself in
bhairavi raga, there came a knock on the door. I felt
irritated at the interruption*
136 THE SNAKE SONG
" Who is there ? " I asked.
" A sadhu ; he wants a mouthful of food."
" At this hour ! Go, go. Don't come and pester
people at all hours."
" But hunger knows no time."
" Go away. I have nothing here. I myself live on
my master's charity."
" But can't you give a small coin or at least a kind
word to a sadhu ? He has seen Kasi, Rameswaram . . ."
" Shut up," I cried, glared at the door, and resumed
Fifteen minutes later the knocks were repeated. I
lost my temper. " Have you no sense ? Why do you
disturb me ? "
" You play divinely. Won't you let me in ? You
may not give me food for my stomach but don't deny
me your music."
I didn't like anyone to be present when I practised,
and this constant interruption was exasperating.
" Don't stand there and argue. If you don't go at
once, I will open the door and push you out."
" Ah, bad words. You needn't push me out. I
am going. But remember, this is your last day of
music. Tomorrow you may exchange your flute for
a handful of dried dates."
I heard his wooden clogs going down the house steps*
I felt relieved and played for about ten minutes. But
my mind was troubled. His parting words . . . what
did he mean by them? I got up, took the lantern
from its nail on the wall, and went out. I stood on
the last step of my cottage and looked up and down
the dark street, holding up the lantern. I turned in.
Vaguely hoping that he might call again, I left the
door half open. I hung up the lantern and sat down.
THE SNAKE SONG 137
I looked at the pictures of gods on the wall and prayed
to be protected from the threat of the unseen men-
dicant. And then I was lost in music once again.
Song after song flowed from that tiny bamboo and
transformed my lonely cottage. I was no longer a
petty mortal blowing through a piece of bamboo. I
was among the gods. The lantern on the wall became
a brilliant star illuminating a celestian hall. . . .
And I came to the snake-song in punnaga varali. I saw
the serpent in all its majesty : the very venom in its
pouch had a touch of glory : now I saw its divinity
as it crowned Shiva's head : Parvathi wore it as a
wristlet : Subramanya played with it : and it was
Vishnu's couch. . . . The whole composition im-
parted to the serpent a quality which inspired awe
And now what should I see between the door and
me but a black cobra ! It had opened its immense
hood and was swaying ecstatically. I stopped my
song and rubbed my eyes to see if I was fully awake.
But the moment the song ceased, the cobra turned
and threw a glance at me, and moved forward. I
have never seen such a black cobra and such a long
one in my life. Some saving instinct told me : " Play
on ! Play on ! Don't stop." I hurriedly took the
flute to my lips and continued the song. The snake,
which was now less than three yards from me, lifted
a quarter of its body, with a gentle flourish reared its
head, fixed its round eyes on me, and listened to the
music without making the slightest movement. It
might have been a carven snake in black stone, so
still it was.
And as I played with my eyes fixed on the snake
I was so much impressed with its dignity and authority
138 THE SNAKE SONG
that I said to myself, " Which God would forego the
privilege of wearing this in His hair ? . . ." After
playing the song thrice over, I commenced a new song.
The cobra sharply turned its head and looked at me
as if to say, " Now what is all this ? " and let out a
terrible hiss, and made a slight movement. I quickly
resumed the snake-song, and it assumed once again
its carven posture.
So I played the song again and again. And however
great a composition might be, a dozen repetitions of it
was bound to prove tiresome. I attempted to change
the song once or twice, but I saw the snake stir
menacingly. I vainly tried to get up and dash out,
but the snake nearly stood up on its tail and promised
to finish me. And so I played the same song all night.
My distinguished audience showed no sign of leaving.
By and by I felt exhausted. My head swam, my
cheeks ached through continuous blowing, and my
chest seemed to be emptied of the last wisp of breath.
I knew I was going to drop dead in a few seconds.
It didn't seem to matter very much if the snake was
going to crush me in its coils and fill me with all the
venom in its sac. I flung down the flute, got up, and
prostrated before it crying, " Oh, Naga Raja, you are
a god ; you can kill me if you like, but I can play
no more. . . . "
When I opened my eyes again the snake was gone.
The lantern on the wall had turned pale in the morning
light. My flute lay near the doorway. 9
Next day I narrated my experiences to my master.
He said, " Don't you know you ought not to play
punnaga varali at night? That apart, now you can
never be sure you will not get the snake in again if you
play. And when he comes he won't spare you unless
THE SNAKE SONG 139
you sing his song over again. Are you prepared to
do it ? "
" No, no, a thousand times no," I cried. The
memory of that song was galling. I had repeated it
enough to last me a lifetime.
" If it is so, throw away your flute and forget your
music. You can't play with a serpent. It is a play-
thing of Gods. Throw away your bamboo. It is of
no use to you any more. ..." I wept at the thought
of this renunciation. My master pitied me and said,
" Perhaps all will be well again if you seek your visitor
of that night and beg his forgiveness. Can you
find him ? "
I put away my flute. I have ever since been
searching for an unknown, unseen mendicant, in this
world. Even today if, by God's grace, I meet him,
I will fall at his feet, beg his forgiveness, and take up
my flute again.
FORTY-FIVE A MONTH
O HANTA could not stay in her class any longer.
*^ She had done clay-modelling, music, drill, a bit of
alphabets and numbers, and was now cutting coloured
paper. She would have to cut till the bell rang and
the teacher said, " Now, you may all go home," or
" Put away the scissors and take up your alpha-
bets " Shanta was impatient to know the time.
She asked her friend sitting next, " Is it five now ? "
" Maybe," she replied.
" Or is it six ? "
" I don't think so," her friend replied, " because
night comes at six."
" Do you think it is five ? "
" Oh, I must go. My father will be back at home
now. He has asked me to be ready at five. He is
taking me to the cinema this evening. I must go
home." She threw down her scissors and ran up to
the teacher. " Madam, I must go home."
" Why, Shanta Bai ? "
" Because it is five o'clock now."
" Who told you it was five ? "
" It is not five now. It is do you see the clock
there? Tell me what the time is. I taught you to
read the clock the other day." Shanta stood gazing
FORTY-FIVE A MONTH 141
at the clock in the hall, counted the figures laboriously
and declared, " It is nine o'clock."
The teacher called the other girls and said, " Who
will tell me the time from that clock ? " Several of
them concurred with Shanta and said it was nine
o'clock, till the teacher said, " You are only seeing the
long hand. See the short one, where is it ? "
" Two and a half."
" So what is the time ? "
" Two and a half."
" It is two forty-five, understand ? Now you may
all go to your seats " Shanta returned to the
teacher in about ten minutes and asked, " Is it five,
Madam, because I have to be ready at five ? Other-
wise my father will be very angry with me. He
asked me to return home early."
" At what time ? "
" Now." The teacher gave her permission to leave,
and Shanta picked up her books and dashed out of
the class with a cry of joy. She ran home, threw her
books on the floor, and shouted, " Mother, Mother,"
and Mother came running from the next house where
she had gone to chat with her friends.
Mother asked, " Why are you back so early ? "
" Has father come home ? " Shanta asked. She
would not take her coffee or tiffin, but insisted on
being dressed first. She opened the trunk and insisted
on wearing the thinnest frock and knickers, while her
mother wanted to dress her in a long skirt and thick
coat for the evening. Shanta picked out a gorgeous
ribbon from a cardboard soap box in which she kept
pencils, ribbons and chalk bits. There was a heated
argument between mother and daughter over the
dress, and finally mother had to give in. Shanta
142 FORTY-FIVE A MONTH
put on her favourite pink frock, braided her hair,
and flaunted a green ribbon on her pigtail. She
powdered her face and pressed a vermilion mark on
her forehead. She said, " Now father will say what
a nice girl I am because I'm ready. Aren't you also
coming, mother ? "
" Not today."
Shanta stood at the little gate looking down the
Mother said : " Father will come only after five ;
don't stand in the sun. It is only four o'clock."
The sun was disappearing behind the house on the
opposite row, and Shanta knew that presently it would
be dark. She ran in to her mother and asked, " Why
hasn't father come home yet, mother ? "
" How can I know ? He is perhaps held up in
Shanta made a wry face : " I don't like these
people in the office. They are bad people "
She went back to the gate and stood looking out.
Her mother shouted from inside : " Gome in, Shanta.
It is getting dark, don't stand there." But Shanta
would not go in. She stood at the gate and a wild
idea came to her head. Why should she not go to
the office and call out father and then go to the
cinema? She wondered where his office might be.
She had no notion. She had seen her father take
the turn at the end of the street every day. If one
went there, one perhaps went automatically to father's
office. She threw a glance about to see if mother
was anywhere and moved down the street.
It was twilight. Everyone going about looked
gigantic, walls of houses appeared very high, and
cycles and carriages looked as though they would bear
FORTY-FIVE A MONTH 143
down on her. She walked on the very edge of the
road. Soon the lamps were twinkling : and the
passers-by looked like shadows. She had taken two
. turns and did not know where she was. She sat down
on the edge of the road biting her nails. She wondered
how she was to reach home. A servant employed in
the next house was passing along, and she picked
herself up and stood before him.
" Oh, what are you doing here all alone ? " he
asked. She replied, " I don't know. I came here.
Will you take me to our house ? " She followed him
and was soon back in her house.
Venkat Rao, Shanta's father, was about to start for
his office that morning when a jutka passed along the
street distributing cinema handbills. Shanta dashed
to the street and picked up a handbill. She held it
up and asked : " Father, will y6u take me to the
cinema today ? " He felt unhappy at the question.
Here was the child growing up without having any
of the amenities and the simple pleasures of life. He
had hardly taken her twice to the cinema. He had
no time for the child. While children of her age in
other houses had all the dolls, dresses, and outings
that they wanted, this child was growing up all alone
and like a barbarian more or less. He felt furious
with his office. For forty rupees a month they seemed
to have purchased him outright.
He reproached himself for neglecting his wife and
child even the wife could have her own circle of
friends and so on : she was after all a grown-up, but
what about the child ? What a drab, colourless
existence was hers ! Every day they kept him at the
144 FORTY-FIVE A MONTH
office till seven or eight in the evening and when he
came home the child was asleep. Even on Sundays
they wanted him at the office. Why did they think
he had no personal life, a life of his own ? They
gave him hardly any time to take the child to the
park or the pictures. He was going to show them
that they weren't to toy with him. Yes, he was
prepared even to quarrel with his manager if necessary.
He said with resolve : " I will take you to the
cinema this evening. Be ready at five."
" Really ! Mother ! " Shanta shouted. Mother
came out of the kitchen.
" Father is taking me to a cinema in the evening."
Shanta's mother smiled cynically. " Don't make
false promises to the child " Venkat Rao glared
at her. " Don't talk nonsense. You think you are
the only person who keeps promises "
He told Shanta : " Be ready at five, and I will
come and take you positively. If you are not ready,
I will be very angry with you."
He walked to his office full of resolve. He would
do his normal work and get out at five. If they
started any old tricks of theirs, he was going to teU
the boss : " Here is my resignation. My child's
happiness is more important to me than these horrible
papers of yours."
All day the usual stream of papers flowed on to
his table and out of it. He scrutinized, signed, and
drafted. He was corrected, admonished, and insulted.
He had a break of only five minutes in the afternoon
for his coffee.
When the office clock struck five and the other
clerks were leaving, he went up to the manager and
said : " May I go, sir ? " The manager looked up
FORTY-FIVE A MONTH 145
from his paper : " You ! " It was unthinkable that
the cash and account section should be closing at five.
" How can you go ? "
" I have some urgent, private business, sir," he
said, smothering the lines he had been rehearsing
since the morning : " Herewith my resignation." He
visualized Shanta standing at the door, dressed, and
palpitating with eagerness.
" There shouldn't be anything more urgent than
the office work ; go back to your seat. You know
how many hours I work ? " asked the manager. The
manager came to the office three hours before the
opening time and stayed nearly three hours after
closing, even on Sundays. The clerks commented
among themselves : " His wife must be whipping him
whenever he is seen at home ; that is why the old
owl seems so fond of his office."
" Did you trace the source of that Ten-Eight
difference ? " asked the manager.
" I shall have to examine two hundred vouchers.
I thought we might do it tomorrow."
" No, no, this won't do. You must rectify it
immediately." Venkat Rao mumbled, " Yes, sir,"
and slunk back to his seat.
The clock showed five-thirty. Now it meant two
hours of excruciating search among vouchers. All
the rest of the office had gone. Only he and another
clerk in his section were working, and, of course, the
manager was there. Venkat Rao was furious. His
mind was made up. He wasn't a slave who had
sold himself for forty rupees outright. He could
make that money easily ; and if he couldn't it would
be more honourable to die of starvation.
He took a sheet of paper and wrote : " Herewith
146 FORTY-FIVE A MONTH
my resignation. If you people think you have bought
me body and soul for forty rupees, you arc mistaken.
I think it would be far better for me and my family
to die of starvation than slave for this petty forty
rupees on which you have kept me for years and years.
I suppose you have not the slightest notion of giving
me an increment. You give yourselves heavy slices
frequently, and I don't see why you shouldn't think
of us occasionally. In any case it doesn't interest me
now, since this is my resignation. If I and my family
perish of starvation, may our ghosts come and haunt
you all your life " He folded the letter, put it in
an envelope, sealed the flap and addressed it to the
manager. He left his seat and stood before the
manager. The manager mechanically received the
letter and put it on his pad.
" Venkat Rao," said the manager. " I'm sure
you will be glad to hear this news. Our officer
discussed the question of increments today, and I've
recommended you for an increment of five rupees.
Orders are not yet passed and so keep this to yourself
for the present." Venkat Rao put out his hand,
snatched the envelope from the pad and hastily slipped
it in his pocket.
"What is that letter?"
" I have applied for a little casual leave, sir, bu
I think. . . ."
" You can't get any leave at least for a fortnight to
" Yes, sir. I realize that. That is why I am
withdrawing my application, sir."
" Very well. Have you traced that mistake ? "
" I'm scrutinizing the vouchers, sir. I will find it
out within an hour. . . ."
FORTY-FIVE A MONTH 147
It was nine o'clock when he went home. Shanta
had already slept. Her mother said, " She wouldn't
even change her frock, thinking that any moment you
might be coming and taking her out. She hardly ate
any food ; and wouldn't lie down for fear of crumpling
her dress. . . ."
Venkat Rao's heart bled when he saw his child
sleeping in her pink frock, hair combed, and face
powdered, dressed and ready to be taken out. " Why
should I not take her to the night show ? " He
shook her gently and called, " Shanta, Shanta."
Shanta kicked her legs and cried, irritated at being
disturbed. Mother whispered, " Don't wake her,"
and patted her back to sleep.
Venkat Rao watched the child for a moment. " I
don't know if it is going to be possible for me to take
her out at all you see they are giving me an in-
crement " he wailed.
DASI THE BRIDEGROOM
HIS name was Dasi. In all the Extension there was
none like him an uncouth fellow with a narrow
tapering head, bulging eyes, and fat neck ; below
the neck he had an immense body, all muscle. God
had not endowed him with very fluent speech. He
gurgled and lisped like an infant. His age was a
mystery. It might be anything between twenty and
fifty. He lived in a house in the last street. It was a
matter of perpetual speculation how he was related to
the master of the house. Some persons said he was a
younger brother, and some said he had been a foundling
brought up by the gentleman. Whatever it was it
was not a matter which could be cleared by Pasi
himself for, as I have already said, he could not
even say how old he was. If you asked, he said a
hundred one day and five on the next. In return
for the food and protection he received, he served
the family in his own way ; he drew water from the
well from dawn till midday, chopped wood, and dug
Dasi went out in the afternoon. When he stepped
out scores of children followed him about shouting
and jeering. Hawkers and passers-by stopped to
crack a joke at his expense. There was particularly
a group in a house nicknamed Mantapam. In the
front porch of the house were gathered all day a good
DASI THE BRIDEGROOM 149
company of old men ; persons who had done useful
work in their time but who now found absolutely
nothing to do at any part of the day. They were ever
on the look out for some excitement or gossip. To
them Dasi was a source of great joy. The moment
Dasi was sighted they would shout, " Hey, fellow,
have you fixed up a bride ? " This question never
failed to draw Dasi in, for he thought very deeply
and earnestly of his marriage. When he came and
squatted in their midst on the floor they would say,
" The marriage season is closing, you must hurry up,
my dear fellow."
" Yes, yes," Dasi would reply. " I am going to the
priest. He has promised to settle it today."
" Today ? "
" Yes, tonight I am going to be married. They
" Who ? "
" My uncle. . . ."
" Who is your uncle ? "
" My elder brother is my uncle. I am in his house
and draw water from his well. See how my hand is
... all the skin is gone. . . ." He would spread
out his fingers and show his palms. They would feel
his palms and say, " Hardened like wood ! Poor
fellow ! This won't do, my dear fellow, you must
quickly marry and put an end to all this. . . ."
Dasi's eyes would brighten at this suggestion, and his
lips would part in a happy smile showing an enormous
front tooth. Everyone would laugh at it, and he, too,
would sway and rock with laughter.
And then the question, " Where is your bride ? "
" She is there ... in Madras ... in Madras. . . ."
" What is she like ? "
i 5 o DASI THE BRIDEGROOM
" She has eyes like this," said Dasi, and drew a large
circle in the air with his finger.
" What is the colour of her skin ? "
" Very, very white."
" Has she long hair ? "
Dasi indicated an immense flow of tresses with
" Is she very good looking ? "
" She is ... yes, yes."
Dasi hid his face in his hand, looked at the group
through a corner of his eye and said shyly, " Yes, yes,
I also like her."
" Where have you the money to marry ? "
" They have to give me three thousand rupees,"
" He means that his wages have accumulated,"
some one explained obligingly.
When he went home he was asked where he had
been and he said, " My marriage." And then he
went and sat down in the shed on his mat, his only
possession in the world. He remained there brooding
over his marriage till he was called in to dine, late in
the night. He was the last to eat because he consumed
an immense quantity of rice, and they thought it a
risk to call him in before the others had eaten. After
food he carried huge cauldrons of water and washed
the kitchen and dining-hall floor. And then he went
to his mat and slept till dawn, when he woke up and
drew water from the well.
For years out of count this had been going on.
Even his life had a tone and rhythm of its own. He
never seemed to long for anything or interfere in
anybody's business ; never spoke to others except
when spoken to ; never so much as thought he was being
DASI THE BRIDEGROOM 151
joked at ; he treated everyone seriously ; when the
Extension School children ran behind him jeering he
never even showed he was aware of their presence ;
he had no doubt the strength of an ox, but he had also
the forbearance of Mother Earth ; nothing ever
seemed to irritate him. . . .
The little cottage in the third street which had
remained vacant from time immemorial suddenly
shed its " To Let " notice. Along with the newspaper
and the letters, the train one morning brought a
film star from Madras, called Bamini Bai a young
person all smiles, silk and powder. She took up her
abode in the little cottage.
Very soon the Extension folk knew all about her.
She was going to stay in Malgudi a considerable time
training herself under a famous musician of the town.
She had her old mother staying with her. The
Extension folk had also a complete knowledge of her
movements. She left home early in the morning,
returned at midday, slept till three o'clock, went out
on a walk along the Trunk Road at five o'clock,
and so on.
At the Mantapam they told Dasi one day, " Dasi,
your wife has arrived."
" Where ? " asked Dasi. He became agitated, and
swallowed and struggled to express all the anxiety
and happiness he felt. The company assumed a very
serious expression and said, " Do you know the house
in the next street, the little house. . . . ? "
" Yes, yes."
" She is there. Have you not seen her ? "
Dasi hid his face in his hands and went away.
He went to the next street. It was about one o'clock
in the afternoon. The film star was not to be seen.
i 5 a DASI THE BRIDEGROOM
Dasi stood on the road looking at the house for some
time. He returned to the Mantapam. They greeted
him vociferously. " How do you like her ? " Dasi
replied, " My eyes did not see her, the door would
" Try to look in through the window. You will
" I will see through the window," said Dasi, and
started out again.
" No, no, stop. It is no good. Listen to me.
Will you do as I say ? "
" Yes, yes."
" You see, she goes out every day at five o'clock.
You will see her if you .go to Trichy Road and
Dasi's head was bowed in shyness. They goaded
him on, and he went along to the Trunk Road and
waited. He sat under a tree on the roadside. It was
not even two o'clock, and he had to wait till nearly
six. The sun beat down fully on his face. He sat
leaning against a tree trunk and brooded. A few
cars passed raising dust, bullock carts with jingling
bells, and villagers were moving about the highway;
but Dasi saw nothing and noticed nothing. He sat
looking down the road. And after all she came along.
Dasi's throat went dry at the sight of her. His
temples throbbed, and sweat stood out on his brow.
He had never seen anything like her in all his life.
The vision of beauty and youth dazzled him. He
was confused and bewildered. He sprang on to his
feet and ran home at full speed. He lay down on
his mat in the shed. He was so much absorbed in
his thoughts that he wouldn't get up when they called
him in to dinner. His master walked to the shed
DASI THE BRIDEGROOM 153
and shook him up. " What is the matter with you ? "
" My marriage. . . . She is there. She is all
" Well, well. Go and eat and do your work, you
fool," said his master.
Next afternoon Dasi was again at the Trunk Road.
This became his daily habit. Every day his courage
increased. At last came a day when he could stare
at her. His face relaxed and his lips parted in a smile
when she passed him, but that young lady had other
thoughts to occupy her mind and did not notice him.
He waited till she returned that way and tried to
smile at her again, though it was nearly dark and she
was looking away. He followed her, his face lit up
with joy. She opened the gate of her cottage and
walked in. He hesitated a moment, and followed her
in. He stood under the electric lamp in the hall.
The mother came out of the kitchen and asked Dasi,
" Who are you ? "
Dasi looked at her and smiled ; at that the old lady
was frightened. She cried, " Bama, who is this man
in the hall ? " Bamini Bai came out of her room.
" Who are you ? " she asked. Dasi melted at the
sight of her. Even the little expression he was capable
of left him. He blinked and gulped and looked
suffocated. His eyes blazed forth love. His lips
struggled to smile. With great difficulty he said,
" Wife . . . wife, you are the wife. . . ."
" What are you saying ? "
" You are my wife," he repeated, and moved nearer.
She recoiled with horror, and struck him in the face.
And then she and her mother set up such a cry that all
the neighbours and passers-by rushed in. Somebody
i 5 4 DASI THE BRIDEGROOM
brought in a police Sub-Inspector. Dasi was marched
off to the police station. The members of the
Mantapam used their influence and had him released
late in the night. He went home and lay on his mat.
His body had received numerous blows from all
sorts of people in the evening ; but he hardly felt
or remembered any of them. But his soul revolted
against the memory of the slap he had received in the
face. . . . When they called him in to eat, he refused
to get up. His master went to him and commanded,
" Go and eat, Dasi. You are bringing me disgrace,
you fool. Don't go out of the house hereafter."
Dasi refused to get up. He rolled himself in the mat
and said, " Go, I don't eat." He turned and faced
On the following day Dasi had the misfortune to
step out of his house just when the children of the
Elementary School were streaming out at midday
interval. They had heard all about the incident of
the previous evening. They now surrounded him and
cried, " Hey, bridegroom." He turned and looked
at them ; there were tears in his eyes. He made a
gesture of despair and appealed to them : " Go, go,
don't trouble me. . . . Go."
" Oh, the bridegroom is still crying ; his wife beat
him yesterday," said a boy. On hearing this Dasi
let out a roar, lifted the boy by his collar and hurled
him into the crowd. He swung his arms about and
knocked down people who tried to get near him.
He rushed into the school and broke chairs and tables.
He knocked down four teachers who tried to restrain
him. He rushed out of the school and assaulted
everyone he met. He crashed into the shops and
threw things about. He leapt about like a panther
DASI THE BRIDEGROOM 155
from place to place ; he passed through the streets of
the Extension like a tornado. . . .
Gates were hurriedly shut and bolted. A group of
persons tried to run behind Dasi, while a majority
preferred to take cover. Soon the police were on the
scene, and Dasi was finally overpowered.
He was kept that night in a police lock-up, and sent
to the Mental Hospital next day. He was not very
easy to manage at first. He was kept in a cell for
some weeks. He begged the doctor one day to allow
him to stand at the main gate and look down the road.
The doctor promised this as a reward for good
behaviour. Dasi valued the reward so much that he
did everything everyone suggested for a whole week.
He was then sent (with a warder) to the main gate
where he stood for a whole hour looking down the
road for the coming of his bride.
OLD MAN OF THE TEMPLE
THE Talkative Man said :
It was some years ago that this happened. I
don't know if you can make anything of it. If you
do, I shall be glad to hear what you have to say ;
but personally I don't understand it at all. It has
always mystified me. Perhaps the driver was drunk ;
perhaps he wasn't.
I had engaged a taxi for going to Kumbum, which
as you may already know, is fifty miles from Malgudi.
I went there one morning and it was past nine in the
evening when I finished my business and started back
for the town. Doss, the driver, was a young fellow of
about twenty-five. He had often brought his car for
me and I liked him. He was a well-behaved, obedient
fellow, with a capacity to sit down and wait at the
wheel, which is really a rare quality in a taxi driver.
He drove the car smoothly, seldom swore at passers-by,
and exhibited perfect judgment, good sense, and
sobriety ; and so I preferred him to any other driver
whenever I had to go out on business.
It was about eleven when we passed the village
Koopal, which is on the way down. It was the dark
half of the month and the surrounding country was
swallowed up in the night. The village street was
deserted. Everyone had gone to sleep ; hardly any
light was to be seen. The stars overhead sparkled
OLD MAN OF THE TEMPLE 157
brightly. Sitting in the back seat and listening to the
continuous noise of the running wheels, I was half
lulled into a drowse.
. All of a sudden Doss swerved the car and shouted :
" You old fool ! Do you want to kill yourself? "
I was shaken out of my drowse and asked : " What
is the matter ? " Doss stopped the car and said,
"You see that old fellow, sir. He is trying to kill
himself. I can't understand what he is up to."
I looked in the direction he pointed and asked,
" Which old man ? " " There, there. He is coming
towards us again. As soon as I saw him open that
temple door and come out I had a feeling, somehow,
that I must keep an eye on him."
I took out my torch, got down, and walked about,
but could see no one. There was an old temple on
the roadside ; it was utterly in ruins ; most portions
of it were mere mounds of old brick ; the walls were
awry ; and there was a main doorway with doors
shut, and brambles and thickets grew over and covered
them. It was difficult to guess with the aid of the
torch alone what temple it was and to what period
" The doors are shut and sealed and don't look as
if they had been opened for centuries now," I cried.
" No, sir," Doss said coming nearer. " I saw the
old man open the doors and come out. He is standing
there ; shall we ask him to open them again if you
want to go in and see ? "
I said to Doss, " Let us be going. We are wasting
our time here."
We went back to the car. Doss sat in his seat,
pressed the self-starter, and asked without turning his
head, " Are you permitting this fellow to come with
158 OLD MAN OF THE TEMPLE
us, sir? He says he will get down at the next
"Which fellow? "I asked.
Doss indicated the space on his left.
" What is the matter with you, Doss ? Have you
had a drop of drink or something ? "
" I have never tasted any drink in my life, sir," he
said, and added, " Get down, old boy. Master says
he can't take you."
" Are you talking to yourself? "
" After all I think we needn't care for these unknown
fellows on the road," he said.
" Doss," I pleaded. " Do you feel confident you
can drive ? If you feel dizzy don't venture to start
" Thank you, sir," said Doss. " I would rather
not start the car now. I am feeling a little out of
sorts." I looked at him anxiously. He closed his
eyes, his breathing became heavy and noisy, and
gradually his head sank.
" Doss, Doss," I cried desperately. I got down,
walked to the front seat, opened the door, and shook
him vigorously. He opened his eyes, assumed a
hunched-up position, and rubbed his eyes with his
hands, which trembled like an old man's.
" Do you feel better ? " I asked.
" Better ! Better ! Hi ! Hi ! " he said in a thin,
" What has happened to your voice ? You sound
like someone else," I said.
" Nothing. My voice is as good as it was. When
a man is eighty he is bound to feel a few changes
" You aren't eighty, surely," I said.
OLD MAN OF THE TEMPLE 159
" Not a day less," he said. " Is nobody going to
move this vehicle ? If not there is no sense in sitting
here all day. I will get down and go back to my
" I don't know driving," I said. " And unless you
care to do it I don't see how the vehicle can move."
" Me ! " exclaimed Doss. " These new carriages !
God knows what they are drawn by, I never under-
stand, though I could handle a pair of bullocks quite
well in my time. May I ask a question ? "
" Go on," I said.
" Where is everybody ? "
" Who ? "
" Lots of people I knew are not to be seen at all.
All sorts of new fellows everywhere, and nobody seems
to care. Not a soul comes near the temple. All
sorts of people go about but not one who cares to stop
and talk to me. Why doesn't the king ever come this
way ? He used to go this way at least once a year
" Which king ? " I asked.
" Let me go, you idiot," said Doss, edging towards
the door on which I was leaning. " You don't seem
to know anything." He pushed me aside, and got
down from the car. He stopped as if he had a big
hump on his back, and hobbled along towards the
temple. I followed him, hardly knowing what to do.
He turned and snarled at me : " Go away, leave me
alone. I have had enough of you."
" What has come over you, Doss ? " I asked.
" Who is Doss, anyway ? Doss, Doss, Doss. What
an absurd name ! Gall me by my name or leave me
alone. Don't follow me calling * Doss, Doss.' "
" What is your name ? " I asked.
160 OLD MAN OF THE TEMPLE
" Krishna Battar ; and if you go and mention my
name people will know who it is for a hundred miles
around. I built a temple where there was only a
cactus field before I dug the earth, made every brick
with my own hands and put them one upon another,
all single-handed. And on the day the temple held
up its tower over the surrounding country, what a
crowd gathered ! The king sent his chief minister. . . ."
" Who was the king ? "
" Where do you come from ? " he asked.
" I belong to these parts certainly, but as far as I
know there has been only a Collector at the head of
the district. I have never heard of any king."
" Hi ! Hi ! Hi ! " he cackled, and his voice rang
through the gloomy silent village. " Fancy never
knowing the king ! He will behead you if he hears it."
" What is his name ? " I asked.
This tickled him so much that he sat down on the
ground, unable to stand (literally) the joke any more.
He laughed and coughed uncontrollably.
" I am unhappy to admit," I said, " that my parents
have brought me up in such utter ignorance of worldly
affairs that I don't know even my king. But won't
you enlighten me ? What is his name ? "
"Vishnu Varma, the Emperor of emperors. . . ."
I cast my mind up and down the range of my
historical knowledge but there was no one of that
name. Perhaps a local chief of pre-British days,
" What a king ! He often visited my temple or
sent his minister for the Annual Festival of the temple.
But now nobody cares."
" People are becoming less godly nowadays," I said.
There was silence for a moment. An idea occurred
OLD MAN OF THE TEMPLE 161
to me, I can't say why. "Listen to me," I said.
" You ought not to be here any more."
" What do you mean ? " he asked, drawing himself
" Don't feel hurt ; I say you shouldn't be here any
more because you are dead."
" Dead ! Dead ! " he said. " Don't talk nonsense.
How can I be dead when you see me before you now ?
If I am dead how can I be saying this and that ? "
" I don't know all that," I said. I argued and
pointed out that according to his own story he was
more than three hundred years old, and didn't he
know that man's longevity was only a hundred ? He
constantly interrupted me, but considered deeply
what I said.
He said : " It is like this. ... I was coming
through the jungle one night after visiting my sister
in the next village. I had on me some money and
gold ornaments. Some robbers set upon me. I gave
them as good a fight as any man could, but they were
too many for me. They beat me down and knifed
me ; they took away all that I had on me and left
thinking they had killed me. But soon I was up and
tried to follow them. They were gone. And I
returned to the temple and have been here since. . . ."
I told him, " Krishna Batta, you are dead, absolutely
dead. You must try and go away from here."
" What is to happen to the temple ? " he asked.
" Others will look after it."
" Where am I to go ? Where am I to go ? "
" Have you no one who cares for you ? " I asked.
" None except my wife. I loved her very much."
" You can go to her."
" Oh, no. She died four years ago. . . ."
162 OLD MAN OF THE TEMPLE
Four years ! It was very puzzling. " Do you say
four years back from now ? " I asked.
" Yes, four years ago from now.' 5 He was clearly
without any sense of time. So I asked, " Was she
alive when you were attacked by thieves ? "
" Certainly not. If she had been alive she would
never have allowed me to go through the jungle after
nightfall. She took very good care of me."
" See here," I said. " It is imperative you should
go away from here. If she comes and calls you, will
you go ? "
" How can she when I tell you that she is dead ? "
I thought for a moment. Presently I found myself
saying, " Think of her, and only of her, for a while
and see what happens. What was her name ? "
" Seetha, a wonderful girl. . . ."
" Come on, think of her." He remained in deep
thought for a while. He suddenly screamed, " Seetha
is coming ! Am I dreaming or what ? I will go
with her. . . ." He stood up, very erect ; he appeared
to have lost all the humps and twists he had on his
body. He drew himself up, made a dash forward,
and fell down in a heap.
Doss lay on the rough ground. The only sign of
life in him was his faint breathing. I shook him and
called him. He would not open his eyes. I walked
across and knocked on the door of the first cottage.
I banged on the door violently.
Someone moaned inside, " Ah, it is come ! "
Someone else whispered, " You just cover your ears
and sleep. It will knock for a while and go away."
I banged on the door and shouted who I was and
where I came from. I sounded the horn of the car
in the street. The door was opened, and a whole
OLD MAN OF THE TEMPLE 163
family crowded out with lamps. " We thought it
was the usual knocking and we wouldn't have opened
if you hadn't spoken."
" When was this knocking first heard ? " I asked.
" We can't say," an old man replied. " The first
time I heard it was when my grandfather was living ;
he used to say he had even seen it once or twice. It
doesn't harm anyone, as far as I know. The only
thing it does is to bother the bullock carts passing the
temple and to knock on the doors at night. . . ."
I said as a venture, " It is unlikely you will be
troubled any more."
It proved correct. When I passed that way again
months later I was told that the bullocks passing the
temple after dusk never shied now and no knocking
on doors was heard at nights. So I felt that the old
fellow had really gone away with his good wife.
OUT OF BUSINESS
LITTLE over a year ago Rama Rao went out of
work when a gramophone company, of which he
was the Malgudi agent, went out of existence. He
had put into that agency the little money he had
inherited, as security. For five years his business
brought him enough money, just enough, to help him
keep his wife and children in good comfort. He built
a small bungalow in the Extension and was thinking
of buying an old Baby car for his use.
And one day, it was a bolt from the blue, the crash
came. A series of circumstances in the world of
trade, commerce, banking and politics was responsible
for it. The gramophone company, which had its
factory somewhere in Northern India, automatically
collapsed when a bank in Lahore crashed, which was
itself the result of a Bombay financier's death. The
financier was driving downhill when his car flew off
sideways and came to rest three hundred feet below
the road. It was thought that he had committed
suicide because the previous night his wife eloped with
Rama Rao suddenly found himself in the streets.
At first he could hardly understand the full significance
of this collapse. There was a little money in the
bank and he had some stock on hand. But the stock
moved out slowly ; the prices were going down, and
OUT OF BUSINESS 165
he could hardly realize a few hundred rupees. When
he applied for the refund of his security, there was
hardly anyone at the other end to receive his
The money in the bank was fast melting. Rama
Rao's wife now tried some measures of economy.
She sent away the cook and the servant ; withdrew
the children from a fashionable nursery school and
sent them to a free primary school. And then they
let out their bungalow and moved to a very small
house behind the Market.
Rama Rao sent out a dozen applications a day,
and wore his feet out looking for employment. For
a man approaching forty, looking for employment
does not come very easily, especially when he has just
lost an independent, lucrative business. Rama
Rao was very businesslike in stating his request. He
sent his card in and asked, " I wonder, sir, if you
could do something for me. My business is all gone
through no fault of my own. I shall be very grateful
if you can give me something to do in your office. . . ."
" What a pity, Rama Rao ! I am awfully sorry,
there is nothing at present. If there is an opportunity
I will certainly remember you.*'
It was the same story everywhere. He returned
home in the evening ; his heart sank as he turned
into his street behind the Market. His wife would in-
variably be standing at the door with the children
behind her, looking down the street. What anxious,
eager faces they had ! So much of trembling, hesi-
tating hope in their faces. They seemed always to
hope that he would come back home with some magic
fulfilment. As he remembered the futile way in
which he searched for a job, and the finality with
166 OUT OF BUSINESS
which people dismissed him, he wished that his wife
and children had less trust in him. His wife looked
at his face, understood, and turned in without uttering
a word ; the children took the cue and filed in silently.
Rama Rao tried to improve matters with a forced
heartiness. " Well, well. How are we all today ? "
To which he received mumbling, feeble responses from
his wife and children. It rent his heart to see them
in this condition. There at the Extension how this
girl would sparkle with flowers and a bright dress ; she
had friendly neighbours, a women's club, and every-
thing to keep her happy there. But now she hardly
had the heart or the need to change in the evenings,
for she spent all her time cooped up in the kitchen.
And then the children. The house in the Extension
had a compound and they romped about with a
dozen other children : it was possible to have numerous
friends in the fashionable nursery school. But here
the children had no friends, and could play only in
the backyard of the house. Their shirts were beginning
to show tears and frays. Formerly they were given
new clothes once in three months. Rama Rao lay in
bed and spent sleepless nights over it.
All the cash in hand was now gone. Their only
source of income was the small rent they were getting
for their house in the Extension. They shuddered to
think what would happen to them if their tenant
should suddenly leave.
It was in this condition that Rama Rao came across
a journal in the Jubilee Reading Room. It was called
The Captain. It consisted of four pages and all of
them were devoted to crossword puzzles. It offered
every week a first prize of four thousand rupees*
For the next few days his head was free from family
OUT OF BUSINESS 167
cares. He was intensely thinking of his answers :
whether it should be TALLOW or FOLLOW. Whether
BAD or MAD or SAD would be most apt for a clue which
said " Men who are this had better be avoided."
He hardly stopped to look at his wife and children
standing in the doorway, when he returned home in
the evenings. Week after week he invested a little
money and sent down his solutions, and every week
he awaited the results with a palpitating heart. On
the day a solution was due he hung about the news-
agent's shop, worming himself into his favour in order
to have a look into the latest issue of The Captain
without paying for it. He was too impatient to wait
till the journal came on the table in the Jubilee Reading
Room. Sometimes the newsagent would grumble,
and Rama Rao would pacify him with an awkward,
affected optimism. " Please wait. When I get a
prize I will give you three years' subscription in
advance. ..." His heart quailed as he opened the
page announcing the prize-winners. Someone in
Baluchistan, someone in Dacca, and someone in
Ceylon had hit upon the right set of words ; not
Rama Rao. It took three hours for Rama Rao to
recover from this shock. The only way to exist seemed
to be to plunge into the next week's puzzle ; that
would keep him buoyed up with hope for a few
This violent alternating between hope and despair
soon wrecked his nerves and balance. At home he
hardly spoke to anyone. His head was always bowed
in thought. He quarrelled with his wife if she refused
to give him his rupee a week for the puzzles. She
was of a mild disposition and was incapable of a
sustained quarrel, with the result that he always got
i68 OUT OF BUSINESS
what he wanted, though it meant a slight sacrifice in
One day the good journal announced a special offer
of eight thousand rupees. It excited Rama Rao's
vision of a future tenfold. He studied the puzzle.
There were only four doubtful corners in it, and he
might have to send in at least four entries. A larger
outlay was indicated. " You must give me five
rupees this time," he said to his wife, at which that
good lady became speechless. He had become rather
insensitive to such things these days, but even he
could not help feeling the atrocious nature of his
demand. Five rupees were nearly a week's food for
the family. He felt disturbed for a moment ; but he
had only to turn his attention to speculate whether
HOPE or DOPE or ROPE made most sense (for " Some
People Prefer This to Despair "), and his mind was
at once at rest.
After sending away the solutions by registered post
he built elaborate castles in the air. Even if it was
only a share he would get a substantial amount of
money. He would send away his tenants, take his
wife and children back to the bungalow in the Ex-
tension, and leave all the money in his wife's hands
for her to manage for a couple of years or so ; he
himself would take a hundred and go away to Madras
and seek his fortune there. By the time the money
in his wife's hands was spent he would have found
some profitable work in Madras.
On the fateful day of results Rama Rao opened
The Captain, and the correct solution stared him in
the face. His blunders were numerous. There was
no chance of getting back even a few annas now.
He moped about till the evening. The more he
OUT OF BUSINESS 169
brooded over this the more intolerable life seemed. . . .
All the losses, disappointments and frustrations of his
life came down on him with renewed force. In the
evening instead of turning homeward he moved along
the Railway Station Road. He slipped in at the
level crossing and walked down the line a couple of
miles. It was dark. Far away the lights of the town
twinkled, and the red and green light of a signal post
loomed over the surroundings a couple of furlongs
behind him. He had come to the conclusion that life
was not worth living. If one had the misfortune to
be born in the world the best remedy was to end
matters on a railway line or with a rope (" Dope ?
Hope?" his mind asked involuntarily). He pulled
it back. " None of that," he said to it and set it rigidly
to contemplate the business of dying. Wife, children
. . . nothing seemed to matter. The only important
thing now was total extinction. He lay across the
lines. The iron was still warm. The day had been
hot. Rama Rao felt very happy as he reflected that
in less than ten minutes the train from Trichinopoly
would be arriving.
He lay there he did not know how long. He
strained his ears to catch the sound of the train, but
he heard nothing more than a vague rattling and
buzzing far off. . . . Presently he grew tired of lying
down there. He rose and walked back to the station.
There was a good crowd on the platform. He asked
someone, " What has happened to the train ? "
" A goods train has derailed three stations off, and
the way is blocked. They have sent up a relief.
All the trains will be at least three hours late today. . . ."
" God, you have shown me mercy ! " Rama Rao
cried and ran home.
1 70 OUT OF BUSINESS
His wife was waiting at the door looking down the
street. She brightened up and sighed with relief on
seeing Rama Rao. She welcomed him with a warmth
he had never known for over a year now. " Oh, why
are you so late today ? " she asked. " I was somehow
feeling very restless the whole evening. Even the
children were worried. Poor creatures ! They have
just gone to sleep."
When he sat down to eat she said, " Our tenants in
the Extension bungalow came in the evening to ask
if you would sell the house. They are ready to offer
good cash for it immediately." She added quietly,,
" I think we may sell the house."
" Excellent idea," Rama Rao replied jubilantly.
" This minute we can get four and a half thousand
for it. Give me the half thousand and I will go away
to Madras and see if I can do anything useful there.
You keep the balance with you and run the house.
Let us first move to a better locality. ..."
" Are you going to employ your five hundred to
get more money out of crossword puzzles ? " she asked
quietly. At this Rama Rao felt depressed for a
moment and then swore with great emphasis, " No,
no. Never again."
THE Talkative Man said :
I was canvassing agent for a company manu-
facturing chemical fertilizers, and my work took me
into the country for over twenty days in the month.
One night I was held up in a dak bungalow, a mile
outside the village Tayur.
If ever there was a deserted dak bungalow it was
this. It was over a hundred years old, built in the
company days, a massive rounded structure, with a
fine circular veranda, hefty pillars, and plaster standing
out in flakes ; the whole thing was tucked away in a
casuarina grove. I had to spend a night in it, and a
little fellow, a nephew of mine, happened to be with me.
The caretaker, a parched old man, who looked like
a lost soul, opened the door for me, placed a rusty oil
lamp on the table in the hall, pushed up and down
some heavy furniture, hovered about till we had had
our dinner, and then said that he must go away for
My nephew somehow seemed to dislike the idea :
" Uncle, why should he go ? "
" Perhaps he has a home in the village ; whatever
it is, why do you want him ? " I asked.
He could not explain. He merely mumbled, " I
thought it might be interesting."
" I hope you are not afraid "
" No, not at all," said the boy.
172 OLD BONES
But I could see that he was slightly nervous. He
was brought up in Madras, accustomed to crowds and
electric lights ; this loneliness in an ancient bungalow
with a shadow-throwing rusty lamp gave him a
feeling of discomfort. So I tried to persuade the old
man : " Why won't you sleep here ? "
" No, no, I can't," wheezed the old man. " I have
been a caretaker for over forty years now, and I won't
sleep here. You may write a complaint if you like.
I don't care if I lose this job. Such a riddance it will
be for me and they won't get another even if they
offer a thousand sovereigns." Jingling his key bunch
he hobbled away. I made a bed for the boy, drew
it close to mine, and asked him to lie down. I shut
the front door, opened a window or two, sat down at
the table, and opened my portfolio. I had my journal
to write and check accounts. I drew the lamp close
to my papers, and was soon absorbed in work. The
boy snored. Outside the casuarina murmured. For
a while noises from the village barking of dogs,
snatches of songs and arguments came floating in
the air, and then they ceased. Even the boy ceased
It was past eleven when I finished my work. I put
away my papers, blew out the lamp, and lay down.
I am not a very sound sleeper. I usually lie blinking
in the dark for a long time. It must have been past
midnight. I was just falling asleep when I heard the
banging of a window shutter. I got up, turned up
the stays of the shutter, and returned to bed. As I
was dozing off it banged again. " Damn," I
said. There was not the slightest breeze. Why did
these things rattle? I fumbled about in the dark
and shut the windows tight. I returned to bed and
OLD BONES 173
lay awake. Shutters in another part of the building
rumbled. It was irritating. I took out my torch to
see if the boy had been disturbed. He was fast asleep.
I went over to every corner of the building and hooked
up the shutters and doors.
When I lay down again, a new kind of disturbance
began. There was a noise as if the front door was
being violently kicked and fisted. I started up.
" Who is there ? " I bellowed. The noise moved
away, and now another door was kicked and fisted,
and then the closed windows. This was a travelling
process : someone seemed to be flying round, battering
all the doors and shutters. The din was continuous.
"Who is there? Who is there?" I cried, almost
running round and round as the noise passed on from
place to place. I grew anxious about the boy. What
a fright he would get if he woke up !
I picked up the box of matches and struck a stick.
As I took it near the wick of the lamp, it was blown
off. I struck another with no better success. I wasted
half the box. And then the glass chimney flew off
the table and splintered on the floor. I flashed the
torchlight on the boy, fervently hoping that he still
slept ; but he was sitting up in bed.
" Raju, lie down, it is nothing," I began.
" You lie down if you like," replied the boy. His
voice was changed. It was gruff like an adult's.
There was no banging on the doors now, and so I
said to him : " Some loose shutters rattled, so it
has stopped now, you see "
" Shut up, will you ? " he said in answer. " You
are a whole set of selfish brutes ; won't trouble to
know what a man wants "
" What are you saying ? " I asked.
174 OLD BONES
" You know where my bones are ? "
" Under your skin, I am sure."
" You will learn not to joke with me," said the
gruff voice. And then the boy left his bed, took me
by the neck, and pushed me out. I was nearly ten
stone, and that was a young fellow of twelve. How
could he handle me in this manner ? I felt indignant
and tried to resist. But it was no use. He displayed
enormous strength. He wheeled me about, almost
tore open the front door, and flung me out. I flew
across the veranda and came down on the lawn,
bruised and shaken. The door shut behind me.
I sat there I don't know how long, frightened out
of my wits. Presently my sense of responsibility
returned. How could I let that youngster shut
himself in ? It was my duty to return him intact to
his parents. I felt truly sorry for having brought him
down with me.
I got up with difficulty, limped up the steps, knocked
on the door.
" Go away," screamed the boy, " or I will rip
" Raju, Raju," I pleaded. " Won't you open the
door for your, uncle ? "
" See here, I am not Raju. So don't call me Raju
hereafter, do you understand ? "
" Who are you ? "
" Do you want to know ? "
" Ah, I am so happy you are prepared to hear
about me ! But what is the use ? You won't help
" Oh, I will do anything for you. But tell me who
OLD BONES 175
I am Murugesan-
" Oh, Murugesan, what are you doing here ? "
" Good man," said the boy happily, greatly pleased
at being called Murugesan.
" What are you doing here ? " I persisted.
" Where can I go ? These scoundrels are defiling
my bones. I won't move till that is stopped."
" Do you want me to do anything ? " I asked, my
voice trembling involuntarily : the prospect of picking
unknown bones at midnight shook me.
" Yes," said the boy. " Go to the backyard and
dig out the roots of the big tamarind tree. You will
find my bones. Take them and throw them into the
well, and I promise I will go away and never come
" If I don't do it ? "
" I will never leave this place, nor open the door."
" Murugesan," I said a few minutes later, " won't
you tell me something about your good self? "
" I stayed here for a night on my way to Malgudi.
That man suffocated me while I slept and stole my
purse. He pressed a pillow on my face and I think
he sat on it."
" Who did it ? "
" The old man who has the keys of this bungalow."
" Isn't he too old to do such a thing ? "
" Oh, no. He is very deft with the pillow. . . .
And then he buried me under the tamarind tree.
Now every pig which noses about for filth stamps
over my head all day ; and every donkey and every
passer-by defiles my bones, and they heap all kinds
of rubbish there. How can I rest ? "
" If I throw the bones into the well, will you open
the door and quit the building for ever ? "
176 OLD BONES
" I promise," said the nephew.
I went down, clutching my torch, and searched for
something to dig with. I pulled out a couple of
bamboo palings from a fence, went to the backyard,
and set to work. I am not a coward, but the whole
situation shook my nerves. The backyard was a most
desolate place, an endless vista of trees and shrubs
and a rocky hillock looming over it all. Jackals
howled far off, and night insects whirred about and
hummed. And this strange task of digging up an
unknown grave at night !
I placed the lit torch on the ground and cleared a
part of the rubbish dumped under the tree. After
throwing up earth for half an hour I picked up a
skull and a few leg bones. I felt sick. I could not
find more than six or seven pieces. I picked them up.
A few yards off there was the well, weed-covered,
with all its masonry crumbling in. I flung the bones
into the well, and as they splashed into the water I
heard the boy shout from within the house : " Many
I ran in. The door was open, and the boy lay
across the threshold. I carried him to his bed.
Next morning I asked him, " Did you sleep well ? "
" Yes. But I had all sorts of wild dreams." His
voice was soft and boyish. I asked, " Can you lift me
and throw me out ? " The boy laughed. " What a
question, uncle ! How can I ? "
The old caretaker came up at about six. I was
ready to start. I had to walk a couple of miles to
the cross-roads and catch an early bus for Malgudi.
I settled accounts with the old man : the broken
chimney had to be paid for, and then the rent for the
OLD BONES 177
As I was about to leave I couldn't resist it. I
called the old man aside and asked : " You know of
a person called Murugesan who spent a night in this
bungalow ? "
The old man's face turned pale. He replied : " I
know nothing. Go about your business."
" My business will be to tell the police what I know."
" The police ! " He fell down at my feet and
cringed : " I know nothing. Please don't ruin an
I went away and joined my nephew. He asked,
" Why did the old man fall on the ground, uncle ? "
" I don't know," I replied.
Till I reached the bus road I debated within myself
whether to tell the police, but ultimately decided
against it. I am a busy man, and getting mixed up
in a police case is a whole-time job. Some day when
I don't have much work I will take it up.
IN a mood of optimism they named him " Attila."
What they wanted of a dog was strength, formid-
ableness, and fight, and hence he was named after the
" Scourge of Europe."
The puppy was only a couple of months old : he
had square jaws, red eyes, pug nose and a massive
head, and there was every reason to hope that he
would do credit to his name. The immediate reason
for buying him was a series of house-breakings and thefts
in the neighbourhood, and our householders decided
to put more trust in a dog than in the police. They
searched far and wide and met a dog fancier. He
held up a month-old black-and-white puppy and said,
" Come and fetch him a month hence. In six months he
will be something to be feared and respected." He
spread out before them a pedigree sheet which was
stunning. The puppy had, running in his veins, the
choicest and the most ferocious blood.
They were satisfied, paid an advance, returned a
month later, paid down seventy-five rupees, and took
the puppy home. The puppy, as I have already
indicated, did not have a very prepossessing appearance
and was none too playful, but this did not prevent
his owners from sitting in a circle around him and
admiring him. There was a prolonged debate as to
what he should be named. The youngest suggested,
" Why not call him Tiger ? "
" Every other street-mongrel is named Tiger," came
the reply. " Why not Caesar ? "
" Caesar ! If a census were taken of dogs you would
find at least fifteen thousand Caesars in South India
alone. . . . Why not Fire ? "
" It is fantastic."
"Why not Thunder?"
" It is too obvious."
" Grip ? "
" Still obvious, and childish."
There was a deadlock. Someone suggested "Attila,"
and a shout of joy went up to the skies. No more
satisfying name was thought of for man or animal.
But as time passed our Attila exhibited a love of
humanity which was disconcerting sometimes. The
Scourge of Europe could he ever have been like this ?
They put it down to his age. What child could help
loving all creatures ? In their zeal to establish this
fact, they went to the extent of delving into ancient
history to find out what " The Scourge of Europe "
was like when he was a child. It was rumoured that
as a child he clung to his friends and to his parents'
friends so fast that often he had to be beaten and
separated. But when he was fourteen he showed the
first sign of his future : he knocked down and plunged
his knife into a fellow who tried to touch his marbles.
Ah, this was encouraging. Let our dog reach the
parallel of fourteen years and people would get to
know his real nature.
But this was a vain promise. He stood up twenty
inches high, had a large frame, and a forbidding
appearance on the whole but that was all. A variety
of people entered the gates of the house every day :
mendicants, bill-collectors, postmen, tradesmen, and
family friends. All of them were warmly received by
Attila. The moment the gate clicked he became alert
and stood up looking towards the gate. By the time
anyone entered the gate Attila went blindly charging
forward. But that was all. The person had only to
stop and smile, and Attila would melt. He would
behave as if he apologized for even giving an impression
of violence. He would lower his head, curve his body,
tuck his tail between his legs, roll his eyes, and moan
as if to say : " How sad that you should have mistaken
my gesture ! I only hurried down to greet you."
Till he was patted on the head, stroked, and told that
he was forgiven, he would be in extreme misery.
Gradually he realized that his bouncing advances
caused much unhappy misunderstanding. And so
when he heard the gate click he hardly stirred. He
merely looked in that direction and wagged his tail.
The people at home did not very much like this
attitude. They thought it rather a shame.
" Why not change his name to Blind Worm ? "
" He eats like an elephant," said the mother of the
family. "You can employ two watchmen for the
price of the rice and meat he consumes. Somebody
comes every morning and steals all the flowers in the
garden and Attila won't do anything about it . . ."
" He has better business to do than catch flower
thieves," replied the youngest, always the defender
of the dog.
" What is the better business ? "
" Well, if somebody comes in at dawn and takes
away the flowers do you expect Attila to be looking
out for him even at that hour ? "
" Why not ? It's what a well-fed dog ought to be
doing instead of sleeping. You ought to be ashamed
of your dog."
" He does not sleep all night, mother. I have often
seen him going round the house and watching all
" Really ! Does he prowl about all night ? "
" Of course he does," said the defender.
" I am quite alarmed to hear it," said the mother.
" Please lock him up in a room at night, otherwise he
may call in a burglar and show him round. Left
alone a burglar might after all be less successful. It
wouldn't be so bad if he at least barked. He is the
most noiseless dog I have ever seen in my life."
The young man was extremely irritated at this.
He considered it to be the most uncharitable cynicism,
but the dog justified it that very night.
Ranga lived in a hut three miles from the town.
He was a " gang cooly " often employed in road-
mending. Occasionally at nights he enjoyed the thrill
and profit of breaking into houses. At one o'clock
that night Ranga removed the bars of a window on
the eastern side of the house and slipped in. He
edged along the wall, searched all the trunks and
almirahs in the house, and made a neat bundle of all
the jewellery and other valuables he could pick up.
He was just starting to go out. He had just put
one foot out of the gap he had made in the window
when he saw Attila standing below, looking up
expectantly. Ranga thought his end had come. He
expected the dog to bark. But not Attila. He waited
for a moment, grew tired of waiting, stood up and put
his forepaws on the lap of the burglar. He put back his
ears, licked Ranga's hands, and rolled his eyes. Ranga
whispered, " I hope you aren't going to bark. . . ."
" Don't you worry. I am not the sort," the dog
tried to say.
"Just a moment. Let me get down from here,"
said the burglar.
The dog obligingly took away his paws and
" See there," said Ranga pointing to the backyard,
" there is a cat." Attila put up his ears at the
mention of the cat, and dashed in the direction
indicated. One might easily have thought he was
going to tear up a cat, but actually he didn't want to
miss the pleasure of the company of a cat if there
As soon as the dog left him Ranga made a dash for
the gate. Given a second more he would have hopped
over it. But the dog turned and saw what was about
to happen and in one spring was at the gate. He
looked hurt. " Is this proper ? " he seemed to ask.
" Do you want to shake me off? "
He hung his heavy tail down so loosely and looked
so miserable that the burglar stroked his head, at
which he revived. The burglar opened the gate and
went out, and the dog followed him. Attila's greatest
ambition in life was to wander in the streets freely.
Now things seemed to be shaping out ideally.
Attila liked his new friend so much that he wouldn't
leave him alone even for a moment. He sat before
Ranga when he sat down to eat, sat on the edge of his
mat when he slept in his hut, waited patiently on the
edge of the pond when Ranga went there now and then
for a wash, slept on the roadside when Ranga was
This sort of companionship got on Ranga's nerves.
He implored, "Oh dog. Leave me alone for a
moment. Won't you ? " Unmoved Attila sat before
him with his eyes glued on his friend.
Attila's disappearance created a sensation in the
bungalow. " Didn't I tell you," the mother said,
" to lock him up ? Now some burglar has gone away
with him. What a shame ! We can hardly mention
it to anyone."
" You are mistaken," replied the defender. " It is
just a coincidence. He must have gone off on his
own account. If he had been here no thief would
have dared to come in. . . ."
" Whatever it is, I don't know if we should after
all thank the thief for taking away that dog. He may
keep the jewels as a reward for taking him away.
Shall we withdraw the police complaint ? "
This facetiousness ceased a week later, and Attila
rose to the ranks of a hero. The eldest son of the
house was going towards the market one day. He
saw Attila trotting behind someone on the road.
" Hey," shouted the young man ; at which Ranga
turned and broke into a run. Attila, who always
suspected that his new friend was waiting for the
slightest chance to throw him, galloped behind Ranga.
" Hey, Attila ! " shouted the young man, and he
also started running. Attila wanted to answer the
call after making sure of his friend ; and so he turned
his head for a second and galloped faster. Ranga
desperately doubled his pace. Attila determined to
stick to him at any cost. As a result of it he ran so
fast that he overtook Ranga and clumsily blocked
his way, and Ranga stumbled over him and fell. As
he rolled on the ground a piece of jewellery (which
he was taking to a receiver of stolen property) flew
from his hand. The young man recognized it as
belonging to his sister, and sat down on Ranga. A
crowd collected and the police appeared on the scene.
Attila was the hero of the day. Even the lady of
the house softened towards him. She said, " Whatever
one might say of Attila, one has to admit that he is
a very cunning detective. He is too deep for words."
It was as well that Attila had no powers of speech.
Otherwise he would have burst into a lamentation
which would have shattered the pedestal under his feet.
AN astrologer passing through the village foretold
that Velan would live in a three-storied house
surrounded by many acres of garden. At this every-
body gathered round young Velan and made fun of
him. For Koopal did not have a more ragged and
God-forsaken family than Velan's. His father had
mortgaged every bit of property he had, and worked,
with his whole family, on other people's lands in
return for a few annas a week. A three-storied house
for Velan indeed ! . . . But the scoffers would have
congratulated the astrologer if they had seen Velan
about thirty or forty years later. He became the sole
occupant of" Kumar Baugh " that palatial house on
the outskirts of Malgudi town.
When he was eighteen Velan left home. His father
slapped his face one day for coming late with the
midday meal, and he did that in the presence of
others in the field. Velan put down the basket,
glared at his father, and left the place. He just
walked out of the village and walked on and on till
he came to the town. He starved for a couple of
days, begged wherever he could, and arrived in
Malgudi, where after much knocking about an old
man took him on to assist him in laying out a garden.
The garden yet existed only in the mind of the gardener.
What they could see now was acre upon acre of
i86 THE AXE
weed-covered land. Velan's main business consisted
in destroying all the vegetation he saw. Day after
day he sat in the sun and tore up by hand the unwanted
plants. And all the jungle gradually disappeared and
the land stood as bare as a football field. Three sides
of the land were marked off for an extensive garden
and on the rest was to be built a house. By the time
the mangoes had sprouted they were laying the
foundation of the house. About the time the margosa
sapling had shot up a couple of yards the walls were
also coming up.
The flowers hibiscus, chrysanthemum, jasmine,
roses, and cannae in the front park suddenly created
a wonderland one early summer. Velan had to race
with the bricklayers. He was now the chief gardener,
the old man he had come to assist having suddenly
fallen ill. Velan was proud of his position and
responsibility. He keenly watched the progress of the
bricklayers and whispered to the plants as he watered
them, " Now look sharp, young fellows. The building
is going up and up every day. If it is ready and we
aren't we shall be the laughing-stock of the town."
He heaped manure, aired the roots, trimmed the
branches, and watered the plants twice a day, and
on the whole gave an impression of hustling Nature ;
and Nature seemed to respond. For he did present
a good-sized garden to his master and his family
when they came to occupy the house.
The house proudly held up a dome. Balconies
with intricately carved wood-work hung down from
the sides of the house ; smooth, rounded pillars, deep
verandas, chequered marble floors, and spacious halls
ranged one behind another, gave the house such an
imposing appearance that Velan asked himself, " Can
THE AXE 187
any mortal live in this? I thought such mansions
existed only in Swarga Loka" When he saw the
kitchen and the dining room he said, " Why, our
whole village could be accommodated in this eating
place alone ! " The housebuilder's assistant told him,
" We have built bigger houses, things costing nearly
two lakhs. What is this house ? It has hardly cost
your master a lakh of rupees. It is just a little more
than an ordinary house, that is all. . . ." After
returning to his hut Velan sat a long time trying to
grasp the vision, scope and calculations of the builders
of the house, but he felt dizzy. He went to the margosa
plant, gripped its stem with his fingers and said, " Is
this all, you scraggy one ? What if you wave your
head so high above mine ? I can put my fingers
around you and shake you up like this. Grow up,
little one, grow up. Grow fat. Have a trunk which
two pairs of arms can't hug, and go up and spread.
Be fit to stand beside this palace ; otherwise I will
pull you out."
When the margosa tree approximately came up to
this vision the house had acquired a mellowness in
its appearance. Successive summers and monsoons
had robbed the paint on the doors and windows and
woodwork of their brightness and the walls of their
original colour, and had put in their place tints and
shades of their own choice. And though the house
had lost its resplendence it had now a more human
look. Hundreds of parrots and mynas and unnamed
birds lived in the branches of the margosa, and under
its shade the master's great-grand-children and the
(younger) grand-children played and quarrelled. The
master walked about leaning on a staff. The lady of
the house, who had looked such a blooming creature
i88 THE AXE
on the inauguration day, was shrunken and grey and
spent most her time in an invalid's chair in the veranda,
gazing at the garden with dull eyes. Velan himself
was much changed. Now he had to depend more
and more upon his assistants to keep the garden in
shape. He had lost his parents, his wife, and eight
children out of fourteen. He had managed to reclaim
his ancestral property which was now being looked
after by his sons-in-law and sons. He went to the
village for Ponged, New Year, and Decpavali, and
brought back with him one or the other of his grand-
children of whom he was extremely fond.
Velan was perfectly contented and happy. He
demanded nothing more of life. As far as he could
see, the people in the big house too seemed to be
equally at peace with life. One saw no reason why
these goods things should not go on and on for ever.
But Death peeped around the corner. From the
servant's quarters whispers reached the gardener in
his hut that the master was very ill and lay in his
room downstairs (the bedroom upstairs so laboriously
planned had to be abandoned with advancing age).
Doctors and visitors were constantly coming and going,
and Velan had to be more than ever on guard against
" flower-pluckers." One midnight he was awakened
and told that the master was dead. " What is to
happen to the garden and to me ? The sons are no
good," he thought at once.
And his fears proved to be not entirely groundless.
The sons were no good, really. They stayed for a
year more, quarrelled among themselves, and went
away to live in another house. A year later some other
family came in as tenants. The moment they saw
Vdan they said, " Old gardener ? Don't be up. to
THE AXE 189
any tricks. We know the sort you are. We will sack
you if you don't behave yourself." Velan found life
intolerable. These people had no regard for a garden.
They walked on flower beds, children climbed the
fruit trees and plucked unripe fruits, and they dug
pits on the garden paths. Velan had no courage to
protest. They ordered him about, sent him on errands,
made him wash the cow, and lectured to him on how
to grow a garden. He detested the whole business
and often thought of throwing up his work and
returning to his village. But the idea was unbearable :
he couldn't live away from his plants. Fortune
however, soon favoured him. The tenants left. The
house was locked up for a few years. Occasionally
one of the sons of the late owner came round and
inspected the garden. Gradually even this ceased.
They left "the keys of the house with Velan.
Occasionally a prospective tenant came down, had
the house opened, and went away after remarking
that it was in ruins plaster was falling off in flakes,
paint on doors and windows remained only in a few
small patches, and white ants were eating away all
the cupboards and shelves. ... A year later another
tenant came, and then another, and then a third. No
one remained for more than a few months. And then
the house acquired the reputation of being haunted.
Even the owners dropped the practice of coming and
seeing the house. Velan was very nearly the master
of the house now. The keys were with him. He was
also growing old. With the best he could do, grass
grew on the paths, weeds and creepers strangled the
flowering plants in the front garden. The fruit trees
yielded their load punctually. The owners leased out
the whole of the fruit garden for three years.
igo THE AXE
Velan was too old. His hut was leaky and he had
no energy to put up new thatch. So he shifted his
residence to the front veranda of the house. It was
a deep veranda running on three sides, paved with
chequered marble. The old man saw no reason why
he should not live there. He had as good a right as
the bats and the rats.
When the mood seized him (about once a year) he
opened the house and had the floor swept and scrubbed.
But gradually he gave up this practice. He was too
old to bother about these things.
Years and years passed without any change. It
came to be known as the " Ghost House," and people
avoided it. Velan found nothing to grumble in this
state of affairs. It suited him excellently. Once a
quarter he sent his son to the old family in the town
to fetch his wages. There was no reason why this
should not have gone on indefinitely. But one day a
car sounded its horn angrily at the gate. Velan
hobbled up with the keys.
" Have you the keys ? Open the gate," commanded
someone in the car.
" There is a small side-gate," said Velan meekly.
" Open the big gate for the car ! "
Velan had to fetch a spade and clear the vegetation
which had blocked the entrance. The gates opened
on rusty hinges, creaking and groaning.
They threw open all the doors and windows, went
through the house keenly examining every portion,
and remarked : " Did you notice the crack on the
dome ? The walls too are cracked . . . There is no
other way. If we pull down the old ramshackle
carefully we may still be able to use some of the
materials, though I am not at all certain that the
THE AXE 191
wooden portions are not hollow inside. . . . Heaven
alone knows what madness is responsible for people
building houses like this. . . ."
They went round the garden and said, " We have
to clear every bit of this jungle. All this will have
to go. . . ." Some mighty person looked Velan up
and down and said, " You are the gardener I suppose ?
We have not much use for a garden now. All the
trees, except half a dozen on the very boundary of
the property, will have to go. We can't afford to
waste space. This flower garden . . . H'm it is ...
old fashioned and crude, and apart from it the front
portion of the site is too valuable to be wasted. . . ."
A week later one of the sons of his old master came
and told Velan, " You will have to go back to your
village, old fellow. The house is sold to a company.
They are not going to have a garden. They are
cutting down even the fruit trees : they are offering
compensation to the leaseholder ; they are wiping out
the garden, and pulling down even the building.
They are going to build small houses by the score
without leaving space even for a blade of grass. . . ."
There was much bustle and activity, much coming
and going, and Velan retired to his old hut. When
he felt tired he lay down and slept ; at other times
he went round the garden and stood gazing at his
plants. He was given a fortnight's notice. Every
moment of it seemed to him precious and he would
have stayed till the last second with his plants but for
the sound of an axe which stirred him out of his
afternoon nap two days after he was given notice.
The dull noise of a blade meeting a tough surface
reached his ears. He got up and rushed out. He
saw four men hacking the massive trunk of the old
192 THE AXE
margosa tree. He let out a scream : " Stop that ! "
He took his staff and rushed at those who were
hacking. They easily avoided the blow he aimed.
" What is the matter ? " they asked.
Velan wept : " This is my child. I planted it.
I saw it grow. I loved it. Don't cut it down. . . ."
" But it is the company's orders. What can we do ?
We shall be dismissed if we don't obey, and someone
else will do it. . . ."
Velan stood thinking for a while and said, " Will
you at least do me this good turn ? Give me a little
time. I will bundle up my clothes and go away.
After I am gone do what you like." They laid down
their axes and waited.
Presently Velan came out of his hut with a bundle
on his head. He looked at the tree-cutters and said,
" You are very kind to an old man. You are very
kind to wait." He looked at the margosa and wiped
his eyes, " Brother, don't start cutting till I am really
gone far, far away."
The tree-cutters squatted on the ground and watched
the old man go. Nearly half an hour later his voice
came from a distance, half indistinctly, " Don't cut
yet. I am still within hearing. Please wait till I am
THERE came down to our town some years ago
(said the Talkative Man) a showman owning an
institution called the Gaiety Land. Overnight our
Gymkhana Grounds became resplendent with
banners and streamers and coloured lamps. From
all over the district crowds poured into the show.
Within a week of opening, in gate money alone they
collected nearly five hundred rupees a day. Gaiety
Land provided us with all sorts of fun and gambling
and side-shows. For a couple of annas in each booth
we could watch anything from performing parrots to
crack motor cyclists looping the loop in the Dome of
Death. In addition to this there were lotteries and
shooting galleries where for an anna you always stood
a chance of winning a hundred rupees.
There was a particular corner of the show which
was in great favour. Here for a ticket costing eight
annas you stood a chance of acquiring a variety of
articles pincushions, sewing machines, cameras or
even a road engine. On one evening they drew a
ticket number 1005, and I happened to own the
other half of the ticket. Glancing down the list of
articles they declared that I became the owner of the
road engine ! Don't ask me how a road engine came
to be included among the prizes. It is more than I
can tell you.
194 ENGINE TROUBLE
I looked stunned. People gathered around and
gazed at me as if I were some curious animal. " Fancy
anyone becoming the owner of a road engine ! " some
persons muttered and giggled.
It was not the sort of prize one could carry home
at short notice. I asked the showman if he would
help me to transport it. He merely pointed at a
notice which decreed that all winners should remove
the prizes immediately on drawing and by their own
effort. However they had to make an exception in
my case. They agreed to keep the engine on the
Gymkhana Grounds till the end of their season and
then I would have to make my own arrangements to
take it out. When I asked the showman if he could
find me a driver he just smiled : " The fellow who
brought it here had to be paid a hundred rupees for
the job and five rupees a day. I sent him away and
made up my mind that if no one was going to draw
it, I would just leave it to its fate. I got it down
just as a novelty for the show. God ! What a bother
it has proved ! "
" Can't I sell it to some municipality ? " I asked
innocently. He burst into a laugh. " As a showman
I have enough troubles with municipal people. I
would rather keep out of their way. . . ."
My friends and well-wishers poured in to con-
gratulate me on my latest acquisition. No one knew
precisely how much a road engine would fetch; all
the same they felt that there was a lot of money in it.
" Even if you sell it as scrap iron you can make a
few thousands," some of my friends declared. Every
day I made a trip to the Gymkhana Grounds to have
a look at my engine. I grew very fond of it. I loved
its shining brass parts. I stood near it and patted it
ENGINE TROUBLE 195
affectionately, hovered about it, and returned home
every day only at the close of the show. I was a poor
man. I thought that after all my troubles were
coming to an end. How ignorant we are ! How
little did I guess that my troubles had just begun.
When the showman took down his booths and
packed up, I received a notice from the municipality
to attend to my road engine. When I went there
next day it looked forlorn with no one about. The
ground was littered with torn streamers and paper
decorations. The showman had moved on, leaving the
engine where it stood. It was perfectly safe anywhere !
I left it alone for a few days, not knowing what to
do with it. I received a notice from the municipality
ordering that the engine should at once be removed
from the ground as otherwise they would charge rent
for the occupation of the Gymkhana Grounds. After
deep thought I consented to pay the rent, and I paid
ten rupees a month for the next three months. Dear
sirs, I was a poor man. Even the house which I and
my wife occupied cost me only four rupees a month.
And fancy my paying ten rupees a month for the road
engine. It cut into my slender budget, and I had to
pledge a jewel or two belonging to my wife ! And
every day my wife was asking me what I proposed to
do with this terrible property of mine and I had no
answer to give her. I went up and down the town
offering it for sale to all and sundry. Someone
suggested that the Secretary of the local Cosmopolitan
Club might be interested in it. When I approached
him he laughed and asked what he should do with a
road engine. " I'll dispose of it at a concession for
you. You have a tennis court to be rolled every
morning/' I began, and even before I saw him smile
196 ENGINE TROUBLE
I knew it was a stupid thing to say. Next someone
suggested, " See the Municipal Chairman. He may
buy it for the municipality." With great trepidation
I went to the municipal office one day. I buttoned
up my coat as I entered the Chairman's room and
mentioned my business. I was prepared to give
away the engine at a great concession. I started a
great harangue on municipal duties, the regime of
this chairman, and the importance of owning a road
roller but before I was done with him I knew there
was greater chance of my selling it to some child on
the roadside for playing with.
I was making myself a bankrupt maintaining this
engine in the Gymkhana Grounds. I really hoped
some day there would come my way a lump sum and
make amends for all this deficit and suffering. Fresh
complications arose when a cattle show came in the
offing. It was to be held on the grounds. I was
given twenty-four hours for getting the thing out of
the ground. The show was opening in a week and
the advance party was arriving and insisted upon
having the engine out of the way. I became desperate ;
there was not a single person for fifty miles around
who knew anything about a road engine. I begged
and cringed every passing bus driver to help me ;
but without use. I even approached the station
master to put in a word with the mail engine driver.
But the engine driver pointed out that he had his
own locomotive to mind and couldn't think of jumping
off at a wayside station for anybody's sake. Meanwhile
the municipality was pressing me to clear out. I
thought it over. I saw the priest of the local temple
and managed to gain his sympathy. He offered me
the services of his temple elephant. I also engaged
ENGINE TROUBLE 197
fifty coolies to push the engine from behind. You
may be sure this drained all my resources. The coolies
wanted eight annas per head and the temple elephant
cost me seven rupees a day and I had to give it one
feed. My plan was to take the engine out of the
gymkhana and then down the road to a field half a
furlong off. The field was owned by a friend. He
would not mind if I kept the engine there for a couple
of months, when I could go to Madras and find a
customer for it.
I also took into service one Joseph, a dismissed
bus-driver who said that although he knew nothing
of road rollers he could nevertheless steer one if it
was somehow kept in motion.
It was a fine sight : the temple elephant yoked to
the engine by means of stout ropes, with fifty
determined men pushing it from behind, and my
friend Joseph sitting in the driving seat. A huge
crowd stood around and wa,tched in great glee. The
engine began to move. It seemed to me the greatest
moment in my life. When it came out of the gym-
khana and reached the road it began to behave in a
strange manner. Instead of going straight down
the road it showed a tendency to wobble and move
zig-zag. The elephant dragged it one "way, Joseph
turned the wheel for all he was worth without any
idea of where he was going, and fifty men behind it
clung to it in every possible manner and pushed it
just where they liked. As a result of all this
confused dragging the engine ran straight into the
opposite compound wall and reduced a good length
of it to powder. At this the crowd let out a joyous
yell. The elephant, disliking the behaviour of the
crowd, trumpeted loudly, strained and snapped its
ig8 ENGINE TROUBLE
ropes and kicked down a further length of the wall.
The fifty men fled in panic, the crowd created a
pandemonium. Someone slapped me in the face it
was the owner of the compound wall. The police
came on the scene and marched me off.
When I was released from the lock-up I found the
following consequences awaiting me : (i) Several
yards of compound wall to be built by me. (2) Wages
of fifty men who ran away. They would not explain
how they were entitled to the wages when they had
not done their job. (3) Joseph's fee for steering the
engine over the wall. (4) Cost of medicine for
treating the knee of the temple elephant which had
received some injuries while kicking down the wall.
Here again the temple authorities would not listen
when I pointed out that I didn't engage an elephant
to break a wall. (5) Last, but not the least, the
demand to move the engine out of its present station.
Sirs, I was a poor man. I really could not find
any means of paying these bills. When I went home
my wife asked : " What is this I hear about you
everywhere ? " I took the opportunity to explain
my difficulties. She took it as a hint that I was again
asking for her jewels, and she lost her temper and
cried that she would write to her father to come and
take her away.
I was at my .wit's end. People smiled at me when
they met me in the streets. I was seriously wondering
why I should not run away to my village. I decided
to encourage my wife to write to her father and
arrange for her exit. Not a soul was going to know
what my plans were. I was going to put off my
creditors and disappear one fine night.
At this point came an unexpected relief in the shape
ENGINE TROUBLE 199
of a Swamiji. One fine evening under the distinguished
patronage of our Municipal Chairman a show was
held in our small town hall. It was a free performance
and the hall was packed with people. I sat in the
gallery. Spellbound we witnessed the Swamiji's yogic
feats. He bit off glass tumblers and ate them with
contentment ; he lay on spike boards ; gargled and
drank all kinds of acids ; licked white-hot iron rods ;
chewed and swallowed sharp nails ; stopped his
heart-beat, and buried himself underground. We
sat there and watched him in stupefaction. At the
end of it all he got up and delivered a speech in which
he declared that he was carrying on his master's
message to the people in this manner. His per-
formance was the more remarkable because he had
nothing to gain by all this extraordinary meal except
the satisfaction of serving humanity, and now he said
he was coming to the very masterpiece and the last
act. He looked at the Municipal Chairman and
asked : " Have you a road engine ? I would like to
have it driven over my chest." The chairman looked
abashed and felt ashamed to acknowledge that he
had none. The Swamiji insisted, " I must have a
The Municipal Chairman tried to put him off by
saying, " There is no driver." The Swamiji replied,
" Don't >vorry about it. My assistant has been
trained to handle any kind of road engine." At this
point I stood up in the gallery and shouted, " Don't ask
him for an engine. Ask me. . . ." In a moment I
Ws on the stage and became as important a person
as the fire-eater himself. I was pleased with the
recognition I now received from all quarters. The
Municipal Chairman went into jthe background.
200 ENGINE TROUBLE
In return for lending him the engine he would drive
it where I wanted. Though I felt inclined to ask for
a money contribution I knew it would be useless to
expect it from one who was on a missionary work.
Soon the whole gathering was at the compound
wall opposite to the Gymkhana. Swamiji's assistant
was an expert in handling engines. In a short while
my engine stood steaming up proudly. It was a
gratifying sight. The Swamiji called for two pillows,
placed one near his head and the other at his feet.
He gave detailed instructions as to how the engine
should be run over him. He made a chalk mark on
his chest and said, " It must go exactly on this ; not
an inch this way or that." The engine hissed and
waited. The crowd watching the show became
suddenly unhappy and morose. This seemed to be a
terrible thing to be doing. The Swami lay down on
the pillows and said, " When I say Om, drive it on."
He closed his eyes. The crowd watched tensely. I
looked at the whole show in absolute rapture after
all, the road engine was going to get on the move.
At this point a police inspector came into the crowd
with a brown envelope in his hand. He held up his
hand, beckoned to the Swamiji's assistant, and said :
" I am sorry I have to tell you that you can't go on
with this. The magistrate has issued an order pro-
hibiting the engine from running over him." The
Swamiji picked himself up. There was a lot of
commotion. The Swamiji became indignant. " I
have done it in hundreds of places already and nobody
questioned me about it. Nobody can stop me from
doing what I like it's my master's order to demon-
strate the power of the Yoga to the people of this
country, and who can question me ? "
ENGINE TROUBLE 201
" A magistrate can/* said the police inspector, and
held up the order. " What business is it of yours or
his to interfere in this manner ? " "I don't know all
that ; this is his order. He permits you to do every-
thing except swallow potassium cyanide and run this
engine over your chest. You are free to do whatever
you like outside our jurisdiction."
" I am leaving this cursed place this very minute/'
the Swamiji said in great rage, and started to go,
followed by his assistant. I gripped his assistant's
arm and said, " You have steamed it up. Why not
take it over to that field and then go." He glared at
me, shook off my hand and muttered, " With my
Guru so unhappy, how dare you ask me to drive ? "
He went away. I muttered, " You can't drive it
except over his chest, I suppose ? "
I made preparations to leave the town in a couple
of days, leaving the engine to its fate, with all its
commitments. However, Nature came to my rescue
in an unexpected manner. You may have heard of
the earthquake of that year which destroyed whole
towns in Northern India. There was a reverberation
of it in our town, too. We were thrown out of our
beds that night, and doors and windows rattled.
Next morning I went over to take a last look at
my engine before leaving the town. I could hardly
believe my eyes. The engine was not there. I
looked about and raised a hue and cry. Search
parties went round. And the engine was found in a
disused well near by, with its back up. I prayed to
heaven to save me from fresh complications. But
the owner of the house when he came round and saw
what had happened, laughed heartily and beamed at
me : " You have done me a service. It was the
dirtiest water on earth in that well and the municipality
was sending notice to close it, week after week. I
was dreading the cost of closing, but your engine fits
it like a cork. Just leave it there."
" But, but . . ."
" There are no buts. I will withdraw all complaints
and charges against you, and build that broken wall
myself, but only leave the thing there."
" That's hardly enough." I mentioned a few other
expenses that this engine had brought on me. He
agreed to pay for all that.
When I again passed that way some months later
I peeped over the wall. I found the mouth of the
well neatly cemented up. I heaved a sigh of great
ALL AVOIDABLE TALK
HE was told to avoid all quarrels that day. The
stars were out to trouble him, and even the
mildest of his remarks likely to offend and lead to a
quarrel. The planets were set against him, and this
terrified him beyond description. Many things that
were prophesied for him lately were coming true.
He sat in a corner of a big jeweller's shop and added
up numbers all day. He left it at the end of a day,
and on his way home, dropped in for a moment to
exchange tit-bits with a friend near his house, who
affected great knowledge of the stars. Occasionally
the friend gave out free prophecies. Many things
that he said came true. " You will have bother about
money matters . . . for a fortnight. Even your
legitimate dues will not reach your hand in time. . . ."
Too true. The usual rent he received from his village
by money order went all over India before coming to
him because of a slight error in the addressing. And
then his friend told him : " Saturn will cause minor
annoyances in the shape of minor ailments at
home. . . ." And the following week everyone,
from his old mother down to the four-month-old,
went down with cold and fever. He himself felt Kke
taking to bed, but his jeweller chief would not let
him go. And now his friend had told him on the
ptevioti* evening, " Now, I see your worst period is
204 ALL AVOIDABLE TALK
coming to an end, but avoid all avoidable talk to-
morrow the whole of Monday. There is always the
danger of your irritating others and finding others
The moment he opened his eyes and lay in bed, he
told himself : " Must not talk to anyone today who
can see where a word will lead ? " He pinched the
cheek of the youngest, patted the back of another,
found the boy of seven unwilling to start for school :
was about to shout at him, but decided not to interfere,
a happy godsend for the boy. His wife appealed :
" Why do you allow him to have his own way ? "
He merely shook his head and went off to the bathroom.
His daughter had locked herself in that meant she
would not come out for an hour ; she had once again
broken the specific order not to go in to bathe at office
time. He tapped the door twice or thrice, glared at
it, and went away and put himself under the tap in
the front garden. All through his dinner he sat with
bowed head, maintaining a determined silence,
answering his wife's questions with a curt " Yes " or
" No/* While starting for his office it was his usual
practice to stand in the passage and ask for a little
betel-nut and leaves, with a cynical remark that they
might have consideration for a man who had to catch
an early tram. . . . Today he stood on the threshold
waiting to see if anyone would serve him and stepped
out into the street, with the reflection : " If they have
not the sense to do a piece of regular duty without
reminder ... I won't chew betel, that is all. . . ."
The tram was crowded as usual. Somebody stood
on his toe. He bore it patiently. The tram conductor
pushed him aside and uttered rude remarks for standing
in the way. He kept quiet. The inspector who
ALL AVOIDABLE TALK 205
hopped into the tram for checking would not budge
at the rjiagic word " Pass " but insisted on seeing it,
and fretted and swore while Sastri fumbled with his
buttons and inner pocket. Sastri never uttered a
word, and bore it like a martyr.
At the office he was only two minutes late, but his
employer, already seated on his cushion, glared at
him and behaved as if he had been two hours late.
Sastri stood before him dumb, listening patiently to
all the charges. " You stand there like a statue,
saying nothing, it must be very convenient, I
suppose . . ." said his employer, looking him up.
" What has come over you ? " nearly escaped Sastri's
lips, but he checked himself as he came to " What
has . . ."
" Eh ? " demanded his employer.
" What is ... What is the time now, sir ? " he
" You ask me the time ! Go, go to your seat,
Sastri, before I am very angry with you. . . ." Sastri
slunk back to his place. The routine of office life
started. The attendant wiped and rearranged the
showcases : customers started coming in to buy and
sell gold trinkets and jewels, the small fan whirred
and gyrated, wafting cool air on his chiefs face, the
other partner came in at about midday and took his
seat. The younger son of the master came in demand-
ing some cash for some extravagance, and went away,
and Sastri sat in his corner surrounded by heavy
registers. Looking at the figures in the pages, he
reflected, " Nearly two o'clock ; another eight hours
of this place, and the day will be over." A customer
stopped before him, held up a trinket and asked :
" Look here, can this diamond be taken out and reset
ad6 ALL AVOIDABLE TAL&
in platinum?" Sastri looked dully at the trinket
and said : " You must ask over there." " It's all right,
1 know that," replied the customer haughtily.
"Answer my question first. . . ." Sastri shook his
head. " Evidently you know nothing about these
" I know nothing," Sastri said.
" Then get out of a shop like this," answered the
other, and moved on and sat before the proprietor.
The proprietor presently called, " Sastri, come here."
" Yes, sir," Sastri said, without lifting up his head.
There were three more lines to be added to complete
the page. If he was interrupted, he would have to
start from the top of the gigantic folio all over again.
So there was some delay before he could respond to
his master's call. Before that his master lost his
temper and shouted : " Drop the pen and come here
when I call, will you ? " There was still one more
line to go in. If this link was missed, there was the
ghastly prospect of having to spend the whole evening
in the company of figures. The master's call became
insistent. Sastri looked up for a moment from his
ledger ; he caught a glimpse of the other's face a
red patch, flushed with anger. He compressed his
Hps and resolved more than ever not to rise without
completing the totalling. He sat as if deaf, calmly
going through the work. By the time he stood before
his master, the latter had gripped in his hand a leaden
paperweight. " Perhaps he wanted to fling it at me,"
Sastri reflected, and was overwhelmed for a moment
^rith resentment. The troublesome customer sat there
comfortably and watched the scene with a self-satisfied
grin. Looking at him Sastri felt it was an added
indignity. " He pays me fifty rupees not for nothing ;
ALL AVOIDABLE TALK 207
I slave for him. But what right has he to insult
me. , . ? " He felt desperate. His brow puckered ;
he asked, looking at the paperweight in his master's
hand: " What's that for ?"
c< Idiot ! What has come over you ? Mind your
own business," said his boss. " Why can't you come
up when you are called ? " Sastri had meantime
recovered his temper, realizing how near an explosion
he had been. " I was totalling up, sir," he said,
disciplining himself resolutely. " Learn to come up
when called. Why were you rude to this gentleman ? ' '
" I wasn't," replied Sastri briefly.
" Do you think I'm lying ? " shouted the customer,
and scowled. Sastri gulped down his reply, just
remembering in time the injunction, " Avoid all
avoidable talk," though he felt like hitting his adversary
now. His boss looked up at him and said : " Sastri,
I must warn you for the last time. You must be
courteous to all my customers : otherwise you may
get out of this shop." " I merely said I didn't know
" I don't want all that. Everyone in this shop
must be able to answer about any department. Other-
wise I don't want him in my service. Do you under-
stand ? " Sastri turned back to go. The customer
added : " I only wanted to know if this could be set
in platinum. Can't he answer that simple question ? "
" Oh, is that all ! Even a child should be able to
answer that," echoed his master. " Sastri, come here."
Sastri again stood before him : " What do you know
of platinum setting ? "
" I don't know anything, sir."
" You sfcy that to me ! All right, go back to your
seat. I wiQ deal with you presently. Get out of my
ao8 ALL AVOIDABLE TALK
sight now. . . ." Sastri sighed and turned back.
While he was going back to his seat, he overheard the
customer saying : " These fellows have become very
Sastri, sitting in his corner, tried to drown his
thoughts in figures. He partly succeeded, one part
of his mind kept smarting : " Some fool comes in, and
because of him, I must stand every insult ! I've
served here for twenty years." The customer had
finished his work and was going past him, throwing
at him a triumphant and contemptuous look. Sastri
quickly turned away and gazed at the folio. " Is this
man born to torment me ? I don't know who he is ! "
A blue beam of sunlight strayed in through a
coloured window pane and moved up to the ceiling :
that meant it was nearing dusk. His boss got up and
passed out : as the motor-car started down below, the
others in the office also rose to go, and filed past the
door, all but Sastri and the watchman. The inter-
ruption from his boss had cut in so badly that numbers
jumped at each other's throats, and knotted themselves
into hopeless tangles ; which meant he would have
to go over immense areas of the ledgers ; he switched
on the light and worked till nine. Stretching his
cramped fingers, he descended the staircase and was
on the road. " I have been called names. I have
been insulted by strangers and by my officer, before
everyone. Platinum ! Platinum ! I've served for
twenty years for less than fifty rupees a month. . . ."
He wondered why he had become so degenerate as
not to be able to earn this anywhere else. " Tonight
I will not dine without extracting an apology from
my boss. Otherwise I shall throw off this work. I
don't care what happens. . . ." He had in a flash
ALL AVOIDABLE TALK 209
a vision of his wife and children starving. It seemed
insignificant to him now. " I will somehow manage.
Open a small shop, with a loan or something, and
manage somehow. I don't care." Nothing seemed
to him important now except redeeming his dignity
as an ordinary human being without any reference to
his position as an accountant or the head of a family.
He remembered the lead paperweight : that hurt his
mind more than anything else. He walked down the
tramline, sunk in thought. A tram for Royapetta
stopped near him. He checked his impulse to climb
into it and go home. He let it go. He sought out
the bus for Kilpauk and got into it.
It was nearly ten when he reached the gates of his
master's bungalow. " Amber Gardens." The watch-
man said : " So late, Sir ! " " Yes, I've to see the
master," he replied. " Is he awake ? " " Yes, he has
just had his dinner and is sitting in the front room. . . ."
Half way up, Sastri felt uneasy as he recollected
the advice of his friend, " Avoid all avoidable talk. . . ."
But he could not turn back now. Fate seemed to be
holding him by the scruff and propelling him forward.
He stood in the hall. His boss had spread himself on
a sofa with a sheet of newspaper before him. Sastri
stood hesitating : " Avoid all ... avoidable. . . ."
his friend's words, drumming themselves through his
brain. " Nothing more avoidable than this. . . ." he
told himself. He wished he could turn back and go
away. Better to tackle him in the office It
is difficult to talk to a boss in his home.
Before he could make up his mind about it, his boss,
turning over a page, observed him standing meekly ;
he stared at him for a while and then said : " Sastri !
H'm. I see now that you have enough sense to fed
2io ALL AVOIDABLE TALK
sorry for your own conduct. I was thinking of you.
If I find you again talking back to me I will dismiss
you on the spot, remember. And again, I find you
are rude to others too. That man comes asking about
" Yes, sir, platinum setting," echoed Sastri.
" That was a madman. You saw me with a paper-
weight in my hand, while he sat before me. . . ."
" Yes, sir, I noticed it."
" But it is none of your concern. Whether mad
or sane, whoever it may be, it is your business to
answer politely whether it be about platinum, silver,
clay, or rag. Everyone in my office should know
about every other department. I would have dismissed
you for your speech and conduct today. But you
have saved yourself now. It is my principle to forgive
a fellow who sincerely repents. It is late. You may
" I am very grateful to you. Good night, sir,"
Sastri said, putting extreme politeness in his tone.
While going home he did not feel the tediousness of
the way or the hour, for he was quietly gloating over
the fact that he had triumphed over his stars that day.
FRUITION AT FORTY
RAMA Rao obtained his officer's permission to
absent himself on the following day. " Happy
returns," exclaimed his officer. " Honestly, I did
not think you were forty ! "
Walking down the road to the bus stand, Rama Rao
paused for a minute to view himself in a large mirror
that blocked the entrance to a hair-cutting establish-
ment. " I don't look forty," he told himself and
When he left home he had not known that it was
the eve of his birthday. It was while drafting an
office note that he realized that the i4th of April was
ahead. As a rule they never fussed over birthdays
at home, but this was a special event : crossing the
fortieth milestone seemed to be an extremely significant
affair, which deserved to be marked down with
feasting and holiday.
At Parry's Corner he struggled into a bus and hung
on to a strap. " Good thing we were monkeys once,"
he reflected. " Otherwise how could we perform our
dinging, and hanging down ; exactly the operations
of a monkey, the only difference being that they get on
smoothly in a herd while we " The conductor
had tried to push him out, somebody squeezed his
sides and scowled at him, and someone was repeatedly
trying to stand on his toes, and the driver was
212 FRUITION AT FORTY
to rattle the passengers to their bones by stopping and
starting with fierce jerks. Rama Rao wriggled through
and fought his way out when the bus stopped at
Central Station. He walked down to Moore Market
for a little shopping. Nobody at home knew of his
birthday. He would surprise them with gifts ; printed
silk pieces, coloured ribbons, building blocks, and
sweets. It would be such a novelty, giving gifts
instead of receiving. He must also buy vegetables
and provisions for a modest feast. It was going to be
a quiet family party and if the children were dis-
inclined to go to school he would not force them.
He went round the Moore Market corridor, for a
preliminary survey. " Shall buy vegetables last," he
told himself. He went into a cloth shop and demanded
to be shown printed silk and selected three or four
bits. The bill was made up. As he scrutinized the
items his hand went into his pocket to bring out the
purse. It was not in its place. He returned the
package. He walked out of Moore Market, rambled
aimlessly, his mind all in a boil. He sought a park
bench and sat down, trying to recollect when he had
last taken out his purse. " Must have brushed against
a pick-pocket in the bus," he told himself. He felt
depressed. He looked about : a mendicant was
sleeping on another bench, some children were gleefully
destroying a flower bed. " Some pick-pocket to
deprive me of my fortieth birthday ! " He felt angry
with the perverse fates which messed up and destroyed
all one's plans.
People said forty was a man's best age. Every one
attained maturity of mind and body. A man's habits
were fixed, his prejudices and favours were solidified
once for all : and his human relationships were well
FRUITION AT FORTY 213
defined and would be free from shocks and surprises.
Rama Rao dwelt on all these fruitions of forty and was
filled with misgivings. " What have I achieved at
forty ? I have lived sixteen years beyond the point
marked by the statistician as the expectation of life
for an Indian. I have completed three quarters of
the longevity of my elders. What have I achieved ? "
He brooded over it and answered. " I have four
children, the eldest reads in a college. The wife has
all the jewellery she had asked for. I have risen to be
the head of my section in the office . . . yet I live
only in a rented house. The marriage of my daughter
and the career of my son will have to be tackled by
me within five years. Am I good for it ? " He was
filled with consternation at being forty, at the duties
that were definitely expected of him because he was
supposed to have reached maturity. He beat his brow
at this thought. He wondered if he had really changed.
He cast his mind back. The earliest birthday he
could remember was the one when his father had
presented him with a glittering lace cap ; then there
was his twentieth birthday soon after his B.A., when he
resolved he would not be this or that ; it was a
catalogue of " I won't this or that " among them he
could only recollect that he had resolved never to
marry and never to take up any employment unless
they offered him three hundred rupees for a start,
some job which would put him on a swivel chair
behind a glass door. And then his thirtieth birthday
when he was seized with panic as he realized that he
was a father of three. He then believed that things
would somehow be clear-cut and settled at forty.
And now here he was. What was it going to be like
at fifty or sixty ? Things would remain just the same.
814 FRUITION AT FORTY
If one did not worry about oneself one started worrying
over children and grand-children. Things did not
change. Rama Rao did not feel that the person who
was pleased with the gift of a lace cap was in any way
different from the one who felt a thrill when the
office communicated an increment. The being who
felt the home-tutor's malicious grip now felt the same
emotion when the Officer called him up in a bad
temper. Deep within he felt the same anxiety
and timidity and he wondered how his wife and
children could ever look up to him for support at all.
He suddenly felt that he had not been growing and
changing. It was an illusion of his appearance caused
by a change of curly hair into grey hair, and by the
wearing of longer clothes. This realization brought
to his mind a profound relief, and destroyed all notions
of years ; at the moment a birthday had no more
significance and fixity than lines marked in the air
with one's fingers. He decided not to mention to
anyone at home that it was his birthday.
As he walked back home his mind was still worried
about the purse. After all only twenty rupees and
an old purse containing receipts, but his wife would
positively get distracted if she heard of the loss. Last
time when he could not account for five rupees after
a shopping expedition she completely broke down.
She must on no account be told of the present loss.
He would keep her mind free and happy that would
be the birthday gift for her keeping away from her
the theft of the purse just as the purse itself was a gift
to an unknown pick-pocket.
He went home late, since he had to walk all the
way. " Held up by unexpected business on the way,"
he explained. Next morning he went $9 bis pfficc fg
FRUITION AT FORTY 215
usual. " Your birthday over ? " asked his chief.
" Yes, sir, over earlier than I expected," he explained.
" Very good," said his officer. " I was hoping
you would turn up for at least half-a-day, a lot of things
to do." " I knew that, sir," Rama Rao said, going
to his desk.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
" T A THAT is sixteen and three multiplied? "Basked
y V the teacher. The boy blinked. The teacher
persisted, and the boy promptly answered : " Twenty-
four," with, as it seemed to the teacher, a wicked
smile on his lips. The boy evidently was trying to
fool him and was going contrary on purpose. He had
corrected this error repeatedly, and now the boy
persisted in saying " Twenty-four." How could this
fellow be made to obtain fifty in the class test and go
up by double-promotion to the first form, as his parents
fondly hoped ? At the mention of " Twenty-four "
the teacher felt all his blood rushing to his head. He
controlled himself, and asked again : " How much ? "
as a last chance. When the boy said the same thing
obstinately, he felt as if his finger was releasing the
trigger : he reached across the table, and delivered a
wholesome slap on the youngster's cheek. The boy
gazed at him for a moment and then burst into tears.
The teacher now regained his normal vision, felt
appalled by his own action, and begged frantically :
" Don't cry, little fellow, you mustn't. . . ."
" I will tell them," sobbed the boy.
" Oh, no, no, no," appealed the teacher. He
looked about cautiously. Fortunately this nursery was
at a little distance from the main building.
" I'll tell my mother," said the boy.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT 217
According to the parents, the boy was^a little angel,
all dimples, smiles, and sweetness only wings lacking.
He was their only child, they had abundant affection
and ample money. They built up a nursery, bought
him expensive toys, fitted up miniature furniture sets,
gave him a small pedal motor-car to go about in all
over the garden. They filled up his cupboard with
all kinds of sweets and biscuits, and left it to his good
sense to devour them moderately. They believed a
great deal in leaving things that way.
" You must never set up any sort of contrariness or
repression in the child's mind," declared the parents.
" You'll damage him for life. It no doubt requires a
lot of discipline on our part, but it is worth it," they
declared primly. " We shall be bringing up a healthy
" Yes, yes," the teacher agreed outwardly, feeling
more and more convinced every day that what the
little fellow needed to make him a normal citizen was
not cajoling but an anna worth of cane, for which
he was prepared to advance the outlay. To the
teacher it was a life of utter travail the only relieving
feature in the whole business was the thirty rupees
they paid him on every first day. It took him in all three
hours every evening of which the first half an hour
he had to listen to the child-psychology theories of the
parents. The father had written a thesis on infant-
psychology for his M.A., and the lady had studied a
great deal of it for her B.A. They lectured to him
every day on their theories, and he got more and more
the feeling that they wanted him to deal with the boy
as if he were made of thin glass. He had to pretend
that he agreed with them, while his own private view
was that he was in charge of a little gorilla.
2i8 CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
Now the teacher did not know how to quieten the
boy, who kept sobbing. He felt desperate. He told
the youngster, " You must not cry for these trifling
matters, you must be like a soldier. . . ."
" A soldier will shoot with a gun if he is hit," said the
boy in reply. The teacher treated it as a joke and
laughed artificially. The boy caught the infection
and laughed too. This eased the situation somewhat.
" Go and wash your face," suggested the teacher a
fine blue porcelain closet was attached to the nursery.
The boy disobeyed and commanded : " Close the
lessons today." The teacher was aghast. " No, no,"
" Then, I will go and tell my mother," threatened
the boy. He pushed the chair back and got up.
The teacher rushed up to him and held him down.
" My dear fellow, I've to be here for another hour."
The boy said : "All right, watch me put the engine
on its rails."
" If your father comes in," said the teacher.
" Tell him it is an engine lesson," said the boy and
smiled maliciously. He went over to his cupboard,
opened it, and took out his train set, and started
assembling the track. He wound the engine and put
it down, and it went round and round. " You are
the Station Master," proclaimed the boy. " No, no,"
cried the teacher. " You have your tests the day after
tomorrow." The boy merely smiled in a superior
way and repeated. " Will you be a Station Master
or not ? " The teacher was annoyed. " I won't be
a Station Master," he said defiantly, whereupon the
young fellow said : " Oh, oh, is that what you say ? "
He gently touched his cheek, and murmured : " It is
paining me here awfully, I must see my mother." He
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT 219
made a movement towards the door. The teacher
watched him with a dull desperation. The boy's
cheek was still red. So he said : " Don't boy. You
want me to be a Station Master? What shall I
have to do ? "
The boy directed, " When the train comes to
your station, you must blow the whistle and cry
c Engine Driver, stop the train. There are a lot of
people today who have bought tickets '. . . ."
The teacher hunched up in a corner and obeyed.
He grew tired of the position and the game in thirty
minutes, and got up, much to the displeasure of his
pupil. Luckily for him the engine also suddenly
refused to move. The boy handed it to him, as he
went back to his seat and said : " Repair it, sir."
He turned it about in his hand and said : " I can't.
I know nothing about it."
" It must go," said the boy firmly. The teacher
felt desperate. He was absolutely non-mechanical.
He could not turn the simplest screw if it was to save
his life. The boy stamped his foot impatiently and
waited like a tyrant. The teacher put it away
definitely with : " I can't and I won't." The boy
immediately switched on to another demand. " Tell
me a story. . . ."
" You haven't done a sum. It is 8.30."
" I don't care for sums," said the boy, " Tell me
" No. . . ."
The boy called, " Appa ! Appa ! "
" Why are you shouting like that for your father ? "
" I have something to tell him, something im-
portant. . . ."
The teacher waa obliged to begin the story of a
220 CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
bison and a tiger, and then he passed on to All Baba
and the Forty Thieves, and Aladin's Lamp. The boy
listened rapt, and ordered : " I want to hear the
story of the bison again. It is good. . . ." The
teacher was short of breath. He had done during
the day six hours of teaching at school. " Tomorrow.
I've lost all my breath. . . ."
" Oh ! All right. I'll go and tell. . . ." exclaimed
the boy ; he got up and started running all of a
sudden towards the house, and the teacher started
after him. The boy was too fast for him, wheeled
about madly, and made the teacher run round the
garden thrice. The teacher looked beaten. The boy
took pity on him and stopped near the rose bush.
But the moment he went up and tried to put his hand
on him, the boy darted through and ran off. It was
a hopeless pursuit ; the boy enjoyed it immensely,
laughing fiendishly. The teacher's face was flushed
and he gasped uncomfortably. He felt a darkness
swelling up around him. He sank down on the
At this moment father and mother emerged from
the house. " What is the matter ? " The teacher
struggled up to his feet awkwardly. He was still
panting badly and could not talk. He had already
made up his mind that he would confess and take
the consequence, rather than stand the blackmail by
this boy. It seemed less forbidding to throw himself
at the mercy of the ciders. They looked enquiringly
at the boy and asked : " Why have you been running
in the garden at this hour ? " The boy looked
mischievously at the teacher. The teacher cleared
his throat and said : " I will explain. . . ." He was
trying to find the words for his sentence. The father
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT 221
asked : " How's he preparing for his test in arithmetic
. . . ? " On hearing the word " test " the boy's face
fell ; he unobtrusively slunk behind his parents and
by look and gestures appealed to the teacher not
to betray him. He looked so pathetic and desperate
that the teacher replied. " Only please let him mug
up the 1 6th table a little more. . . . He is all right.
He will pull through." The boy looked relieved.
The teacher saw his grateful face, felt confident that
the boy would not give him up .now, and said :
" Good-night, sir ; we finished our lessons early, and
I was just playing about with the child . . . something
to keep up his spirits you know."
UNDER THE BANYAN TREE
r | TrfE village Somal, nestling away in the forest
JL tracts of Mempi, had a population of less than
three hundred. It was in every way a village to make
the heart of a rural reformer sink. Its tank, a small
expanse of water, right in the middle of the village,
served for drinking, bathing, and washing the cattle,
and it bred malaria, typhoid, and heaven knew what
else. The cottages sprawled anyhow and the lanes
twisted and wriggled up and down and strangled
each other. The population used the highway as the
refuse ground and in the backyard of every house
drain water stagnated in green puddles.
Such was the village. It is likely that the people
of the village were insensitive : but it is more than
likely that they never noticed their surroundings because
they lived in a kind of perpetual enchantment. The
enchanter was Nambi, the story-teller. He was a man
of about sixty or seventy. Or was he eighty or one
hundred and eighty ? Who could say ? In a place
so much cut off as Somal (the nearest bus-stop was
ten miles away) reckoning could hardly be in the
familiar measures of time. If anyone asked Nambi
what his age was he referred to an ancient famine
or an invasion or the building of a bridge and
indicated how high he ha<J stood from the ground at
UNDER THE BANYAN TREE 2*3
He was illiterate, in the sense that the written word
was a mystery to him ; but he could make up a story,
in his head, at the rate of one a month ; each story
took nearly ten days to narrate.
His home was die little temple which was at the
very end of the village. No one could say how he
had come to regard himself as the owner of the temple.
The temple was a very small structure with red-striped
walls, with a stone image of the Goddess, Shakti, in
the sanctum. The front portion of the temple was
Nambi's home. For aught it mattered any place
might be his home ; for he was without possessions.
All that he possessed was a broom with which he
swept the temple ; and he had also a couple ofdhotits
and upper cloth. He spent most part of the day in
the shade of the banyan which spread out its branches
in front of the temple. When he felt hungry he
walked into any house that caught his fancy and
joined the family at dinner. When he needed new
clothes they were brought to him by the villagers.
He hardly ever had to go out in search of company;
for the banyan shade served as a club house for the
village folk. All through the day people came seeking
Nambi's company and squatted under the tree. If
he was in a mood for it he listened to their talk and
entertained them with his own observations and
anecdotes. When he was in no mood he looked at
the visitors sourly and asked, " What do you think
I am ? Don't blame me if you get no story at the
next moon. Unless I meditate how can the Goddess
give me a story? Do you think stories float in the
air ? " ; and moved out to the edge of the forest and
squatted there contemplating the trees.
Oa Friday evenings the village turned up at the
224 UNDER THE BANYAN TREE
temple for worship, when Nambi lit a score of mud
lamps and arranged them around the threshold of
the sanctuary. He decorated the image with flowers,
which grew wildly in the backyard of the temple. He
acted as the priest and offered to the Goddess fruits
and flowers brought in by the villagers.
On the nights he had a story to tell he lit a small
lamp and placed it in a niche in the trunk of the
banyan tree. Villagers as they returned home in the
evenings saw this, went home, and said to their wives,
" Now, now, hurry up with the dinner, the story-teller
is calling us." As the moon crept up behind the
hillock, men, women and children, gathered under the
banyan tree. The story-teller would not appear yet.
He would be sitting in the sanctum, before the
Goddess, with his eyes shut, in deep meditation. He
sat thus as long as he liked and when he came out,
with his forehead ablaze with ash and vermilion, he
took his seat on a stone platform in front of the temple.
He opened the story with a question. Jerking his
finger towards a vague, far-away destination, he asked,
" A thousand years ago, a stone's throw in that
direction, what do you think there was ? It was not
the weed-covered waste it is now, % for donkeys to roll
in. It was not the ash-pit it is now. It was the
capital of the king. , . ." The king would be
Dasaratha, Vikramaditya, Asoka, or anyone that came
into the old man's head ; the capital was called
Kapila, Kridapura, or anything. Opening thus the
old man went on without a pause for three hours.
By then brick by brick the palace of the king was
raised. The old man described the dazzling durbar
hall where sat a hundred vassal kings, ministers, and
subjects ; in another part of the palace all the musicians
UNDER THE BANYAN TREE 225
in the world assembled and sang ; and most of the
songs were sung over again by Nambi to his audience ;
and he described in detail the pictures and trophies
that hung on the walls of the palace. . . .
It was story-building on an epic scale. The first
day barely conveyed the setting of the tale, and
Nambi's audience as yet had no idea who were all
coming into the story. As the moon slipped behind
the trees of Mempi Forest Nambi said, " Now friends,
Mother says this will do for the day." He abruptly
rose, went in, lay down, and fell asleep long before
the babble of the crowd ceased.
The light in the niche would again be seen two or
three days later, and again and again throughout the
bright half of the month. Kings and heroes, villains
and fairy-like women, gods in human form, saints and
assassins, jostled each other in that world which was
created under the banyan tree. Nambi's voice rose
and fell in an exquisite rhythm, and the moonlight
and the hour completed the magic. The villagers
laughed with Nambi, they wept with him, they adored
the heroes, cursed the villains, groaned when the
conspirator had his initial success, and they sent up
to the gods a heartfelt prayer for a happy ending. . . .
On the last day when the story ended, the whole
gathering went into the sanctum and prostrated before
the Goddess. . . .
By the time the next moon peeped over the hillock
Nambi was ready with another story. He never
repeated the same kind of story or brought in the same
set of persons, and the village folk considered Nambi a
sort of miracle, quoted his words of wisdom, and
lived on the whole in an exalted plane of their own,
though their life in all other respects was hard and drab.
226 UNDER THE BANYAN TREE
And yet it had gone on for years and years* And
one moon he lit the lamp in the tree. The audience
came. The old man took his seat and began the
story. ". . . When King Vikramaditya lived, his
minister was . . ." He paused. He could not get
beyond it. He made a fresh beginning. " There was
the king . . ." he said, repeated it, and then his
words trailed off into a vague mumbling. " What
has come over me ? " he asked pathetically. " Oh,
Mother, great Mother, why do I stumble and falter ?
I know the story. I had the whole of it a moment
ago. What was it about ? I can't understand what
has happened ? " He faltered and looked so miserable
that his audience said, " Take your own time. You
are perhaps tired."
" Shut up ! " he cried. " Am I tired ? Wait a
moment ; I will tell you the story presently."
Following this there was utter silence. Eager faces
looked up at him. " Don't look at me ! " he flared
up. Somebody gave him a tumbler of milk. The
audience waited patiently. This was a new experience.
Some persons expressed their sympathy aloud. Some
persons began to talk among themselves. Those who
sat in the outer edge of the crowd silently slipped away.
Gradually, as it neared midnight, others followed this
example. Nambi sat staring at the ground, his head
bowed in thought. For the first time he realized that
he was old. He felt he would never more be able to
control his thought or express them cogently. He
looked up. Everyone had gone except his friend
Man the blacksmith. " Man, why aren't you also
Mari apologized for the rest : " They didn't want
to tire you ; so they have gone away "
UNDER THE BANYAN TREE $27
Nambi got up. " You arc right. Tomorrow I
will make it up. Age, age. What is my age? It
has come on suddenly." He pointed at his head and
said, " This says ' Old fool, don't think I shall be your
servant any more. You will be my servant hereafter.*
It is disobedient and treacherous."
He lit the lamp in the niche next day. The crowd
assembled under the banyan faithfully. Nambi had
spent the whole day in meditation. He had been
fervently praying to the Goddess not to desert him.
He began the story. He went on for an hour without
a stop. He felt greatly relieved, so much so that he
interrupted his narration to remark, " Oh, friends.
The Mother is always kind. I was seized with a
foolish fear . . ." and continued the story. In a few
minutes he felt dried up. He struggled hard : " And
then . . . and then . . . what happened ? " He
stammered. There followed a pause lasting an hour.
The audience rose without a word and went home.
The old man sat on the stone brooding till the cock
crew. " I can't blame them for it," he muttered to
himself. " Can they sit down here and mope all
night ? " Two days later he gave another instalment
of the story, and that, too, lasted only a few minutes.
The gathering dwindled. Fewer persons began to take
notice of the lamp in the niche. Even these came only
out of a sense of duty. Nambi realized that there was
no use in prolonging the struggle. He brought the
story to a speedy and premature end.
He realized what was happening. He was harrowed
by the thoughts of his failure. " I should have been
happier if I had dropped dead years ago/ 9 he said to
himself. " Mother, why have you struck me
dumb: . . ? " He shut himself up in the sanctum,
UNDER THE BANYAN TREE
hardly ate any food, and spent the greater part of
the day sitting motionless in meditation.
The next moon peeped over the hillock, Nambi lit
the lamp in the niche. The villagers as they returned
home saw the lamp, but only a handful turned up at
night. " Where are the others ? " the old man asked.
" Let us wait." He waited. The moon came up.
His handful of audience waited patiently. And then
the old man said, " I won't tell the story today, nor
tomorrow unless the whole village comes here. I
insist upon it. It is a mighty story. Everyone must
hear it." Next day he went up and down the village
street shouting, " I have a most wonderful tale to tell
tonight. Gome one and all ; don't miss it. . . ."
This personal appeal had a great effect. At night a
large crowd gathered under the banyan. They were
happy that the story-teller had regained his powers.
Nambi came out of the temple when everyone had
settled and said : " It is the Mother who gives the
gifts ; and it is She*who takes away the gifts. Nambi
is a dotard. He speaks when the Mother has anything
to say. He is struck dumb when She has nothing to
say. But what is the use of the jasmine when it has
lost its scent ? What is the lamp for when all the oil
is gone ? Goddess be thanked. . . . These are my
last words on this earth ; and this is my greatest
story." sHe rose and went into the sanctum. His
audience 4 hardly understood what he meant. They sat
there till they became weary. And then some of them
got up and stepped into the sanctum. There the
story-teller sat with his eyes shut. " Aren't you going
to tell us a story ? " they asked. He opened his eyes,
looked at them, and shook his head. He indicated
by gesture that he had spoken his last words.
UNDER THE BANYAN TREE
When he felt hungry he walked into any cottage
and silently sat down for food, and walked away the
moment he had eaten. Beyond this he had hardly
anything to demand of his fellow-beings. The rest
of his life (he lived for a few more years) was one
great consummate silence.